Syncopated Family Travel: The Return Home on Route 66

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

syncopated_blueswallowThe return home from a trip always presents a share of mixed feelings.  On some level there is the disappointment that the excitement of new terrain is coming to an end.  On the flip side there is that draw to that familiar setting, that place of comfort, home.  I am Dorothy standing in the sparkling Emerald City of wonder, clacking my ruby heels together and longing for the black and white Kansas farm, even if it is dirty and smells like pig shit.

We plot our return through the American Southwest; venerable Route 66 is our road home.   It whips and winds through the desolate landscapes and broken towns in Arizona and New Mexico.  Every dot on the map haunts with past ghosts.  It’s like going through a nursing home and looking at the fragile skeletons.  In their dim eyes you can just catch glimmers of past lives full of adventure and glory.

syncopated_wigwamEach turn of the mother road holds shuttered motels forever locked at “no vacancy”.  In those now boarded up rooms, men and women once held each other with the thrill of new love throbbing through their wide open veins.  The neon is burned out with promises made to be broken.  Nothing last forever.  Progress is a motherfucking Interstate ripping through every good intention with the thrill of the open road.  Progress is going from point A to point B in a linear fuck you at 70 miles per hour.  It’s the destination that is important, not the landscape that is  blurring in the side gaze — definitely not the past vanishing behind. Progress is a streamlined sonofabitch.

This leg of the trip is made more poignant with the recent visit to Disney’s Carsland fresh in memory.  The film Cars was based on director John Lasseter’s own family road trip over this asphalt time machine.  As we traverse through the towns and places that inspired fictional Radiator Springs, I have a new appreciation for what I had considered one of Pixar’s lesser endeavors.  Stripped from the Hollywood trappings it is a sentimental lament to what was left behind.

syncopated_me_writing_windowIn Tucumcari, New Mexico, we check into the Historic Route 66 motel.   It doesn’t have the brilliant neon of the Blue Swallow down the road, but it makes up with it in mid-century modern style.   Parked outside is a gleaming black Cadillac.  The bright lobby inside looks like it could double as a Mad Men set.   The standout feature is a front desk counter made out of petrified wood. As we settle down, Cars happens to be playing on the television.  The Divine is really good at serving up these little coincidences to serve as signs telling our sub-conscience to wake the fuck up and pay attention.  The rooms along the motel stretch have curtain wall windows, acting as a looking glass for those who want to watch the world drive by: coming, going, always moving.

syncopated_seligman_carsRoad trips like these offer a neutral space to gaze out of life’s window.  This is us at our most conflicted: forever seeking the new, exciting future and longing for the simplicity of the past.  We want the shiny, we have a soft spot for the rusty and tarnished. We crave technicolor but long for black and white. This is our burden to bare as humans who have the sense to be able to tell past from present, to plot and plan, to remember yesterday, and hope for tomorrow. This is our shared journey through space and time.

Exploring Amarillo, Texas

Story and Photos by Susan McKee

Route 66 Amarillo, TexasAmarillo really is best by morning – or so they told me when I got my marching orders. I was to be up early and clothed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots and hat — ready to roll.

It was a leisurely drive out into the flat countryside, past gently nodding oil wells and silently turning turbine windmills past miles and miles of mesquite and desert. The vacant landscape gradually changed as we headed toward Elkins Ranch, where I was promised a hearty chuck wagon breakfast in a spectacular setting. The land, suddenly, was no longer absolutely flat. Trees appeared, and the hint of a gorge turned into magnificent canyon vistas.

Amarillo, Palo Duro CanyonPalo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, with a maximum depth of more than 800 feet — all formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Who knew this stunning site was hidden below ground level in the panhandle of Texas!

I climbed into a jeep for the rough ride down the canyon roads to the “Cow Camp” chuck wagon. Touted as the “second largest” (after the Grand Canyon), it is a dazzling site – miles of striated rock forming the walls of rugged valleys. The summer rains had left the vegetation green and lush, with wildflowers in profusion — but the scent of breakfast interrupted my reveries.

Texas Canyon CountryThere’s something about food cooked over an open fire. I don’t think I’ve ever had better scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausages or coffee. I’ll bet, however, that the hardscrabble cowboys of the Old West never tasted the watermelon and cantaloupe served that morning.

As I finished my second cup of coffee (and fourth biscuit), local singer and songwriter Ed Montana tuned up his guitar and serenaded the breakfast group, starting with (what else?) “Amarillo By Morning”.

I’d been to Amarillo many times before, but all of my visits were confined to that narrow strip on either side of I-40. If I thought about the city at all, it was as a rest-and-refuel stop on my way driving somewhere else.

How wrong I was, and part of the evidence is visible right from the interstate: the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center Museum, a 36,500-square foot facility showcasing the history and modern activities of the American Quarter Horse.

I had always wondered what happened to the other ¾ of the equine – but the 12-minute introductory video told me the real story behind the name. The horse (the most popular breed in America) was named for the quarter-mile track that it was bred to run back in English Colonial times. The combination of racing and gambling in this country has deep roots.

Quarter Horses moved west with the pioneers, who found them strong, agile and possessing an instinctive understanding of bovine behavior that makes them perfect for cowboys. When you watch rodeos, it’s the horse you see anticipating every move of that calf. There are some 3 million in the United States, according to the American Quarter Horse Association.

horse and saddle shop Richard OliverHorses need saddles, so I wandered over to the Oliver Saddle Shop where I happened to find a member of the third generation – Richard Oliver – hard at work. He said it takes about a week to make a saddle, and he does 45 or 50 a year (there’s a 10-month waiting list). Fortunately, I wasn’t in any hurry for a saddle (priced from $2400 on up, averaging $6000), but the hand-tooled leather belts are to die for.

If there are cowboys, there must be Indians. I didn’t find the real thing in Amarillo, but I did find a great little museum at Kwahadi with a small collection of art and artifacts.

Although it shares its name with an historical group of Comanches, this isn’t an organization of Native Americans. It’s an innovative program begun almost 70 years ago as a Boy Scout troop and now sponsored by Kwahadi Heritage, Inc. The young dancers (girls also participate now) learn the traditional dances of Plains and Pueblo Indians, and perform them in Amarillo and around the world. The digs for a dance troop includes a terrific collection of art and artifacts.

Amarillo Texas MuseumsAnother surprise was the Panhandle-Plains Museum. The magnificent Art Deco building (from 1932) houses an outreach effort of the West Texas A&M University that tells the history of the region. I discovered that Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado named the Palo Duro Canyon in the 16th Century. The name means “hard wood” and refers to the ubiquitous juniper.

Great signage gives a short course in the geology of Texas from Precambrian to the present. A replica of Palo Duro Canyon points out 280 million years of history that entered modern times when Charles Goodnight acquired most of it as a cattle ranch in 1876.

There are the usual collections in the museum – period costumes, guns, buggies and wagons – but my favorite gallery told about oil and gas production in the Texas panhandle.

Don’t forget that Amarillo straddles the iconic American highway: Route 66. Signposts point out the route through town for this legendary U.S. highway, and vestiges of its glory days still can be seen.

The Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council can fill you in on all the details you need to make your own trip to this northernmost part of Texas.

 

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