Saturday, December 17, 2011

Westward American Road Diary: Route 66, the Hoover Dam and Area 51

An iconic image of Route 66 in Arizona captured in 1953 in Life magazine.

There's a scene in the film Dirty Dancing where a man bemoans to a father that no one wants to come to summer resorts like his in the Catskills anymore. Trips to Europe are all the rage now among the kids. As we traveled the American West we kept seeing signs for "Historic Route 66" and finally took one of the roads in Seligman, Arizona, I felt the ghosts of a time of booming American road travel and discovery. I didn't know much about Route 66 before this trip, other than some references in popular culture. Some history notes from Wikipedia on Route 66,

"The National Historic Route 66 Federation was founded in 1995 for the purpose of saving the businesses, communities and roadbed of Route 66. The famous road carried travelers across much of the country from the day it was commissioned on November 11, 1926 through June 25, 1985 when it was decommissioned.

Since its birth, most motorists preferred it because the weather tended to be more hospitable than along the more northerly highways. Businesses and entire towns sprang up to cater to the ever-increasing traffic. Although it brought considerable prosperity, the thoroughfare also spawned bumper-to-bumper congestion in the communities and numerous accidents on the rural stretches leading to the gruesome nickname, "Bloody 66."

Just as it seemed the mostly two lane road could not handle another vehicle, on June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act into law which allocated $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles (66,000 km) of interstate highway. Over the next 29 years, section after section of Route 66 was methodically bypassed by multi-lane, high speed expressways enabling motorists to increase their speeds, significantly. This was a time-saving advantage to those on the move, but a distinct disadvantage to businesses and communities along the Route. Where customers once thronged, they rarely showed up at all, anymore."

You'll see images of icons like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe everywhere. I wonder if there will be cutouts of Lady Gaga that tourists will snap photos of fifty years from now? Maybe because Dean and Monroe didn't grow old - no grey hairs or wrinkles, no few extra pounds each year - that they are so captured in time. Myself - I long for a time when "stars" had actual talent and lifted us up to the sky, and didn't have to rely so heavily on shock value or stunts.

A pink Cadillac. I love the style of these older cars. "Style" is what I think of clothes, cars, and architecture of earlier eras likes the fifties. I don't know if there's a lot of "style" now. What do you think?

Made America, thank you! So many tourist trinkets (and many other goods) have a Made in China sticker. Bring back manufacturing jobs! I hope corporations start to figure out soon that if Americans don't have jobs, they won't have money to take a vacation, go out to eat, buy a sweater, and such.

Breakfast at Westside Lilo's Cafe. I forgot how much I love cinnamon toast. I remember checking out a cookbook as a kid in elementary school and cinnamon toast was one of the recipes. Isn't it curious what the heart remembers?

We hear about the Gold Rush in California in our history classes, but less so about the Silver Rush in Nevada, which is the second largest producer of silver in the country after Alaska, according to Wikipedia. Several prospectors in 1859 discovered a rich lode silver ore in the Comstock Lodge, which was a minor gold placer district since 1849. A great rush of miners came eastward from California, but the district has been mostly inactive since the 1920s. How little I thought about the origins of silver until now.

The Rough Guide to the Southwest tells us "The Hoover Dam...was designed to block the Colorado River and provide low-cost electricity for the cities of the Southwest, it's among the tallest dams ever built (760 ft high), and is made of enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from the West Coast to New York. It was completed in 1935." Most tourists like myself come here before Las Vegas, snap their photos and head to Sin City. Curious about labor history and those built this, I discovered this on Wikipedia,

"Soon after the dam was authorized, increasing numbers of unemployed converged on southern Nevada. Las Vegas, then a small city of some 5,000, saw between 10,000 and 20,000 unemployed descend on it. A government camp was established for surveyors and other personnel near the dam site; this soon became surrounded by a squatters' camp...Once construction began, Six Companies hired large numbers of workers, with more than 3,000 on the payroll by 1932 and with employment peaking at 5,251 in July 1934. "Mongolian" (Chinese) labor was forbidden by the construction contract, while the number of blacks employed by Six Companies never exceeded thirty, mostly lowest-pay-scale laborers in a segregated crew, who were issued separate water buckets...

The site of Hoover Dam endures extremely hot weather, but the summer of 1931 was especially torrid, with the daytime high averaging 119.9 °F (48.8 °C). Sixteen workers and other riverbank residents died of heat prostration between June 25 and July 26."

Do you think the masses would descend if such massive projects were developed now? Some people I've spoken to think the government should be providing for projects that develop alternative energy and road repair that would supply such jobs. It's food for thought as we go into the next election and also ponder the state of jobs in America.

We are now on the Extraterrestrial Highway looking for an entry to Area 51 because of two men: Bob Lazar and my alien-obsessed boyfriend Steve.

Lazar, according to Wikipedia, "has said to have worked from 1988 until 1989 as a physicist at an area called S-4 (Sector Four), allegedly located near Groom Lake, Nevada, at the location also known as Area 51. According to Lazar, S-4 served as a hidden military location for the study and possible reverse engineering of extraterrestrial flying saucers. Lazar says he saw nine different discs there and provides details on their mode of propulsion. However, his credibility has come under fire after "schools he was supposed to have attended had no record of him, while others in the scientific community had no memory of ever meeting him."

Steve keeps telling me my book club at work (which meets sporadically) should read Mack Maloney's, "UFOs in Wartime: What They Don't Want You to Know." It actually sounds pretty intriguing.

Farmer's mailbox? Transporter of secret messages? You be the judge. On the other side of this someone scribbled, "Don't Drink Starbucks!"

Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

You can stay at the motel or dine here. We sat a table next to the bar. There was a husband and his wife with their daughter a few tables away and I was tempted to ask, "Which one of you is the true believer and who is here for moral support? I'm the latter." It's not that I'm a non-believer, I'm just not the enthusiast Steve is, which is why I'll be watching a Ginger Rogers film in the bedroom while he's watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel in the living room.

Steve had a burger with some special alien sauce. I had the homemade pumpkin pie and coffee.

The landscape between Rachel and Las Vegas was haunting.

It felt dreamlike. A dream I didn't want to waken from.


  1. I drove out along Route 66 when moving to CA. At one point, we decided to stay in a little hotel--massive pot holes in the parking lot, empty pool, but all of the charm of the 50s. Well, we woke up the next day covered in bites. Oy vey. ha!

    We didn't check out any of the alien stuff. I have never been too interested in all things alien, but these tourist destinations look pretty nifty!

  2. Since I just love retro-things this detour was a lot of fun.

    We checked into one place in Colorado with that fifties charm, but mysterious bugs (not bed bugs) were all over the place seeking warmth from the cold, and the innkeeper refunded our money and we left after 10 minutes. I was saddened how many out of business establishments there were and some places felt like ghost towns of their former selves.