Archive for October, 2011

“Meet Me in St. Louis”

Friday, October 28th, 2011

-Suzanne and I in front of the Old Courthouse and The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

We have both lived in St. Louis and when we return we often go downtown to visit familiar sites, including the Gateway Arch. The tallest monument in the United States and a symbol of the city, the stainless-steel Arch soars 630 feet above the Mississippi River. Designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965, this engineering feat commemorates the city’s impact on westward expansion as the storied Gateway to the West.

Established in 1764 by the French along the mighty river just below its confluence with the Missouri River, St. Louis was named for Louis IX, patron saint of the reigning monarch of France Louis XV. From its beginning, the city acted as a commercial center on the edge of the frontier, attracting merchants, steamboat captains, beer barons, and railroaders. It was also a jumping-off place for adventurers, fur trappers, soldiers, and sodbusters.

Citizens, including some of our ancestors, were proud that their city was a key crossroads and a leading industrial and transportation hub. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, St. Louis—tempered by political upheaval, social conflict, cholera epidemics, and waterfront fires—emerged as one of the largest and vibrant cities in the United States. Although it had been founded by the French and, for a time, was governed by the Spanish, St. Louis became the melting pot of cultures and customs. The population swelled with waves of Germans, Italians, Irish, and African Americans, all of who left their distinctive marks. It often was said that the whole world passed through the old river city.

New Mexico’s “Caviar”

Friday, October 21st, 2011

-Chile ristras grace an adobe wall in Chimayo, New Mexico

The single food staple that makes me howl at the moon is the piquant, savory, peerless—and misunderstood—chile. I am not alone. The mere mention of the word—whether chile for the peppers or chili for the meat dish made from them—can bring tears of anguish or bliss to multitudes of people. The chile, an ancient symbol, glorious spice, tangy condiment, is the soul food of the gods.

Botanically a fruit but commercially a vegetable, the chile was not developed by Spaniards, but was one of the earliest plants cultivated by the ancient Indians of America. Some chile seeds found in Mexican excavations date from 7,000 B.C. Known as “chili” to the Aztecs, the pods of this versatile plant were in abundant use before Columbus splashed ashore. He discovered Indians cultivating ancestors of today’s chile, and he mistakenly called the plan “pepper” because of its pungency.

Deeply rooted in the history of the Aztecs, this plant, with its hundreds of varieties has spread throughout Latin America, jumped the border, and consumed the Rocky Mountain West. The love of chile went on to cross the continent at a prairie-fire clip. Like cowboy boots, blue jeans, and tequila, chile became respectable.

Still, the truth, the whole truth about chile can be found in the growing fields and kitchens of New Mexico. It is there that chile is most cherished. New Mexicans eat more chiles per capita than anyone else. They grow it in backyard gardens and munch raw chilies like candy. Chile is the fiery essence of New Mexico. Some aficionados would just as soon give the plant deity status.

Chile pilgrims hungry for action should make the trek to New Mexico in the autumn. That is the perfect season—aspens are at their glory, piñon smoke hangs in the air, and ripe chiles are brought in from the fields. It doesn’t get any better.

Old Cheyenne

Friday, October 14th, 2011

-Giant boot outside of the Union Pacific Depot, Cheyenne, Wyomin

Long before the arrival of the Lincoln Highway, nation’s first transcontinental road, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was a good place for railroad workers to winter over while the tracks were being laid in the post-Civil War years. By 1867, the army had established a fort to protect the railroaders from Indians, and once the trains were rolling, the town quickly became a haven for Union Pacific sojourners. All manner of folks arrived in Cheyenne—gamblers, soiled doves, whiskey peddlers, cattlemen, outlaws, and every imaginable opportunist.

These days, both locals and visitors enjoy the Downtown Historic District, highlighted by the Union Pacific Depot, one block south of Lincolnway on Capitol Avenue. Build of multicolored sandstone blocks in 1886 the depot was beautifully restored to its original grandeur in 2004, two years before being listed on The National Register of Historic Places. The old depot, with its Romanesque clock tower, looks straight up Capitol Avenue and faces off with the state Capitol building with its twenty-four-carat gold-leaf dome.

Near the Union Pacific Depot, on the corner of Lincolnway and Capitol, just across from the historic Plains Hotel, is the Wrangler Building, originally named the Phoenix Block when it went up in 1882. The Wrangler—the Western-wear business for which the old building is named—is considered by many the best store around for cowboy apparel. Since 1943, both real and wannabe cowboys and cowgirls have showed up at the Wrangler to buy shirts, jeans, boots, and belt buckles the size of saucers. Business spikes just before Cheyenne Frontier Days, an annual event since 1897 and the world’s largest and oldest outdoor rodeo. Known as “The Daddy of ‘em All,” the big celebration is staged every July at Frontier Park.

Mom and Pop Places

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

There are still motels — real motels operated by real people who truly care about their guests and their comfort. Mom and Pop places, as we like to call them. And they really are just that. They become our home away from home.

Now back in those days I am describing—when there were no chain motels, no cookie cutter places—we had to make decisions about where to lay our heads at night. When Dad grew weary from driving, he and Mom would scan the shoulders of the road, especially near cities or in little towns. They looked for lodging. Big ribbons of neon helped them make their choice, as did the signs that said refrigerated air, free ice, and a few years later boasted of free TV.

After Dad finally pulled into a motel Mom already was doling out her advice even before he’d cut off the engine. She always told him the same thing. You could count on it. She’d turn to dad and say, ”Please go look at a room first and make sure everything is okay.” That was her code for being sure the rooms were clean and not overrun with roaches.

Dad would go into the office and be gone for a while and then he’d come back and announce, “It’s a good place.” I cannot remember one time ever when he came back and said it wasn’t good. Not once. I also recall some of his choices were borderline or maybe over the line but Mom let it pass and we all survived the night.

I witnessed this ritual hundreds of times during the 1950s and early 1960s before I left home for the Marines and college and to make my way in the world.

I still have memories of many of those grand old motels where I stayed as a boy or later when traveling the Mother Road or one of our other historic highways. I can see the crinkly paper on the water glasses, the bedspreads with embroidered bucking cowboys, the bottle opener mounted on the door frame, the pastel colored tile in the bath.
Some of my favorite motels were in Oklahoma. From Quapaw to Texola, I have had occasion to check into some of the old road’s best and a few that need a little help.

In Oklahoma — with 410 miles of old highway, more Route 66 miles than any of the eight states it flows through — far too many motels are derelict or abandoned. Many of these properties have become junkyards, car lots, or flophouses.

Many owners simply do not care. They would rather sell the properties to a developer to build yet another strip center or a chain eatery.

Today at least 3,000 motels along the entire route in all eight states are in various states of repair or disrepair.

This has to stop and has to stop now. Right now. We cannot save them all, but by God we have to save at least examples of the motels, cafes, curio shops and other commercial archaeology from all the layers, all the incarnations of Route 66. We owe it to ourselves, to the public, to the many travelers who flock to the varicose old road. We owe it to our kids and grandkids and to future travelers.
Remember that this highway— including the long stretch running through Oklahoma — is a true mirror of the nation. Like all roads, Route 66 and what takes place on it reflect our society and culture. That includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy, the shades of gray, and the cold hard truth of life. That has always been the case. That has always been a fact. That will never change.