The Magic Gate - Part 1
Arizona Highways - Colorado Sunsets
In ’65, I was seventeen. That spring, after perusing an issue of Arizona Highways Magazine, my father asked if I would accompany him on a road trip to the Four Corners states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. I jumped at the chance.
In August 1965, we departed Los Angeles in our 1964 Ford Galaxy 500 XL, 2-door, hardtop. The only equipment lacking on our Ford was an overflow tank for the superheated coolant that spewed past the radiator at each stopping point in the desert.
Early on, while traveling to summer camp, I had seen parts of the Mojave Desert from a school bus window. My other desert experience consisted of viewing Walt Disney’s 1953 film, “The Living Desert”. After viewing Disney’s documentary, I abandoned my belief that all deserts were inhospitable places, better left to the likes of the Twenty Mule Team from Borax.
Over forty years ago, as our trip progressed, new sections of Interstate Highway rapidly replaced or bypassed The Mother Road, Old Route 66. Whether it was on Old-66 or new I-40, my first taste of desert heat was in Needles, California. There, an outdoor thermometer read 117 degrees. To me, the town “Needles” and the word “needless” had a lot in common.
From Needles, both Route 66 and I-40 crossed the Colorado River, and then ran north towards Kingman, Arizona. Ironically, Old-66 took the shorter, if steeper route. In contrast, I-40 ran east for many miles before turning north. The road from Kingman to Flagstaff, Arizona was like a 150-mile slow-motion roller coaster ride. From Needles, our overall elevation gain was almost 7000 feet. In the same spirit that their ancestors joined the Saints in the old Utah Territory or explored the African savannah, contemporary Europeans seek the open spaces of the Southwest. Studies indicate that humans, regardless of their origin, choose open grasslands and wide vistas over any other idealized environment. In my memory, Flagstaff consisted of nothing more than one grade crossing and a nearby railroad station. Since then, Flagstaff has transformed itself into a major city, now utilizing Winslow, Arizona, sixty miles to the east as its more affordable suburb.
Remembering our 1965 trip engenders in me nostalgia for a bygone era. Interestingly, people from outside the U.S. seem to share that nostalgia. In particular, the British, Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians arrive here by the thousands each summer. Often, they rent motor homes, bent on rediscovering
In 1965, the combined population of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah was about seven million. New Mexico then topped Utah by sixty thousand. Today, the Four Corners has a population of almost eighteen million. Utah now outpaces New Mexico by seven hundred thousand. Suffice to say the Four Corners supports eleven million more people today than in 1965.
“Flag”, as the locals call it, etched a visual imprint on my mind. I can still see what I call the Magic Gate, where South Beaver Street crossed the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad. In my memory, Flagstaff consisted of nothing more than one grade crossing and a nearby railroad station. Since then, Flagstaff has transformed itself into a major city, now utilizing Winslow, Arizona, sixty miles to the east as its more affordable suburb. South of there, at Snowflake, lives World Citizen, Kathy Hemenway.
From Flag, we headed east on Santa Fe Avenue, better known as Old-66, only to discover that the Mother Road was being replaced by I-40. From Flagstaff, the Santa Fe rail line took the most direct route east, turning only when necessary to follow the easiest grade. Likewise, Old-66 and I-40 share almost identical routes, closely following the tracks. The result is that the same Petrified Forest, Native American trading posts and historic motels that we saw in 1965 still lie adjacent to the current highway.
At Gallup, New Mexico we drove east on Old-66 towards downtown. Featuring substantial brick buildings, it was a regional center for trade and tourism. Traveling down that same road today reveals a scene little changed since 1965. All along I-40, older towns have remained in place, with new construction occurred at either end of town.
From Gallup, we drove north on Old U.S. Highway 666. With the Devil’s popularity in contemporary American culture, the moniker “Highway 666” tempted many. Not withstanding the risk of “going to hell” for stealing highway signs, travelers made illegal souvenirs of Old-666 markers. In 2003, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah gave up the fight, changing the road’s designation to the benign but meaningless “U.S. Highway 491”. Ironically, new highway signposts often have “Old Highway 666” signs attached just below their new Highway 491 signs.
Each afternoon, for the duration of our trip we experienced the gift of rainfall, either in the form of desert thunderstorms or mountain showers. In the late 1960s, American pilots returning from Vietnam to airbases in the Southwest recognized a similarity to the pattern of rain they had seen in Southeast Asia. “Monsoon”, a word with Dutch, Portuguese and Arabic origins thus made its way into our weather lexicon.
Since its establishment in the 1880s, Durango, Colorado has nestled itself into the narrows of the Upper Animas River Valley. On our 1965 visit, the town had not yet expanded beyond its original borders. Today, a regional shopping center featuring Wal-Mart and Home Depot greets travelers arriving from Aztec, New Mexico in the south.
Durango is a year-round tourist destination. To the chagrin of prospective homeowners, cash-buyers swooped in during the early 2000s. Durango’s high prices now send the budget-minded to nearby Bayfield or Mancos. During a recent visit to Canyon De Chelly, Arizona, we spoke with a Native American artist, selling his works there. Each week, he commuted two hundred and forty miles, to work on construction jobs in Durango.
During the 1960s, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was in transition. Construction gangs upgraded the gravel roadbed and then laid heavier rails. Those improvements support the larger, more powerful locomotives seen on the rail line today. As old as they appear, the current engines represent relatively modern designs, when compared to the originals. The upgraded railroad helped carry the cities of Durango and Silverton through their transition from a mining, farming and ranching economy into today’s recreation and tourist-based economy.
With Durango’s gentrification came new residents who did not appreciate steam locomotives in nearby barns, puffing coal smoke into the night air. A recent Durango Herald letter to the editor asked that the locomotives extinguish their fireboxes each night, so that nearby residents could sleep in peace and clean air. Old wags pointed out that one could not restart a locomotive each day as if it were a diesel engine. The general sentiment in the community was, “if you do not like coal smoke, move elsewhere”.
Read Part 2 of this five-part story about the Four Corner States.