Described as “the greatest torch song ever written” by no less an expert than Frank Sinatra, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is the tale of a man leaving his woman for the umpteenth time, but this time for good. The song, written by Jimmy Webb in 1965, takes the listener on a lonely road trip across the American southwest, through Phoenix and Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, and has been performed by Glen Campbell (most famously), Isaac Hayes and Nick Cave, with his Bad Seeds. I’m not leaving anyone, but I am interested to see where the song takes me.
BY THE TIME I get to Phoenix, after a hard drive (without sparing the horsepower) through the desiccated, desolate beauty that is northern Arizona, it is already dark.
The following morning, I find myself at the city’s Musical Instrument Museum. Having marvelled at the profusion of bagpipes the world has produced, the piano at which John Lennon wrote Imagine and Wu Man’s pipa, I discover that Webb is due to perform here in a mere two weeks. Like his protagonist, however, I’ll be long gone by then, but I accept it as a good omen.
There are two roads heading from Phoenix towards Albuquerque; I reckon our man would have taken the most direct route but, according to my random sample of one local, Interstate 17 to Flagstaff is “much prettier”, so I plump for that. Webb’s runner fled alone but I have company: Garmin, the GPS device on my dashboard.
Shouty men on AM radio stations are discussing sport and religion – in either English or Spanish – as Garmin manages to get me out of Phoenix without any drama.
The gulches and creeks I17 crosses soon become canyons as the road rises steadily to 7,000 feet above sea level. As they flash past, the signposts say it all: Black Canyon City, Bloody Basin Road, Horsethief Basin; ignore the bitumen and this land hasn’t changed a great deal since cowboys fought Indians and Mexicans for it.
Dominated by snow-capped Mount Elden, Flagstaff is a pleasant-looking town with a disproportionate number of restaurants and bars. With little time to find evidence to the contrary, I figure that’s because there is not much else to do here - other than outfit yourself for the hiking/skiing there is to be had in the surrounding countryside - but eat and drink.
Leaving Flagstaff, Garmin wants me to get onto I40, but a train 60 or 70 carriages long is preventing me from crossing the tracks that run through town – and, besides, I am on “historic Route 66”. So I head east – for a few blocks, at least, until a series of traffic lights puts paid to any kicks on this section of 66. I give in to Garmin’s patient nagging, cross the by-now clear tracks and head for the interstate that is proving to be the death of what’s colloquially known as “the Main Street of America”.
Twin Arrows, Two Guns … this is Navajo country. I’d stop to take a look at Meteor Crater, the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site, and the Petrified Forest National Park, named for its large deposits of wood-turned-to-stone, but I’m on a tight schedule, and it’s already dark by the time I arrive in Gallup, New Mexico, and begin looking for a motel.
It’s tempting to imagine Gallup was named after what cowboys would do to get away from the godforsaken place. It may also be on “historic Route 66” (they must have been given a good deal when the street-sign people ordered those brown markers), but the first motel I check into, I check right back out of. The Royal Holiday, next door, is better – but still has no running water. Road trippers may be able to do without a wash here and there, but sleep is another matter. At 2.30am, I grumpily yank the plug on a fridge that is louder than the trains that noisily toot their way past the front door every few minutes.
I gratefully leave Gallup in my dust before sunrise. It’s just two hours to Albuquerque, where the world’s largest hot-air balloon festival is in full swing. Even so, I manage to miss the highlights of the day. Ballooning is a sport that is best appreciated at dawn, and, staying as close to the speed limit as I can, I’m still a long way off when the radio tells me that 433 balloons have just ascended in unison, which, by the sound of it, is some kind of record.
A few still hang in the sky as my Jeep crests the lip of the Rio Grande rift valley, Albuquerque laid out in all its glory at the foot of the Sandia Mountains. “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky,” wrote Willa Cather of this part of New Mexico, in the 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
By the time Webb’s absconder “makes” Albuquerque, the woman he’s leaving behind “will be working”. There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of that going on as I cruise the near-deserted Downtown streets, but perhaps everyone is still out at the festival – or mixing with the tourists in the Old Town, an area that has been restored to just the right side of “Western-movie theme park”.
Television series Breaking Bad was filmed in Albuquerque and I plan to take one of the many tours on offer – until a woman in the Old Town tourist office tells me most of the locations are private homes, the occupants of which are getting a bit fed up of being harassed by nerds looking for the ghost of Walter White. Instead, I look around the Rattlesnake Museum – surviving the visit and getting a certificate to prove how brave I have been – before taking a stroll. The restaurants and trinket sellers around the plaza and along the narrow streets to its north are buzzing with tourists, but the wonderful Museum of Art and History and the San Felipe de Neri church (built in 1793) each provide cool sanctuary in their own way.
Across Romero Street from the church is a sweet shop selling such oddities as candy cigarettes (“Just like Dad!”) and bacon-flavoured beer, as well as the headquarters of the Navajo Code Talkers: Native Americans who passed on vital information during the second world war in their own language, to foil Japanese eavesdroppers.
Outside, beneath a canopy protecting them from the sun, sit Bill Toledo and Alfred Peaches (who has since passed away). It’s not easy to strike up a conversation with the old soldiers, but they’re happy to sign books written about their exploits.
ONE HUNDRED AND seventy five miles to the east of Albuquerque, Garmin has changed her tune about Route 66, leading me off the I40 at the first of the five exits that lead through clumps of old sagebrush into Tucumcari, a forlorn-looking town bisected by a long, intact stretch of the Mother Road. This must have been quite the pit stop, judging by the number of motels and gas stations now crumbling into the hardscrabble plain. In the Perry Como version of the song Route 66, “Albuquerque and Tucumcari, make New Mexico extraordinary!” In most other versions, though, that line is missing – and in the latter’s case, for any artist contemplating doing a version now, the omission is justifiable.
It’s a 40-minute drive from Tucumcari to the Texas state line, and beyond that, the plains are broken by more than just sandstone mesas: as far as the eye can see, wind turbines turn majestically in the breeze. The Wildorado Wind Ranch (being Texas, it couldn’t just be a “farm”, now, could it) is one of a number of huge projects that help the Lone Star State produce more wind power than any other.
The sun is beginning to set as I pass the last of these giant windmills, the red lights at their tops blinking off and on as one; a dangerously hypnotic effect for a driver who has been journeying hard. Consequently, I almost drive straight past the Cadillac Ranch.
The artwork – 10 Cadillacs half-buried nose-first in the ground – is on private land but visitors are encouraged to clamber over the old cars. Close to the “ranch”, the smell of spray paint is overwhelming, each car being given a new haphazard look by “citizen artists” who have come equipped for the job. (It’s a shame so few of them take away their empty cans when they leave).
Amarillo in the evening rush hour is a disorienting onslaught of neon, and I pass up the chance to sample its many motel delights in favour of Shamrock – a slice of Ireland in the Texas Panhandle – and the evocative Blarney Inn. The elderly receptionist is so keen to speak to someone who has actually been to Ireland, she follows me across the car park to my room and spends far more time than is necessary pointing out the meagre amenities.
Shamrock’s two main claims to fame are Bill Mack and, just around the corner from the little garden dedicated to the singer-songwriter, the U-Drop Inn, an art deco former gas station that was immortalised in the animated movie Cars; the building’s distinctive “nail stuck in the ground” design was a feature of Radiator Springs. Having spent a total of five minutes inspecting both attractions, I’m soon back on I40.
Route 66 continues to shadow the interstate and at Erick, Oklahoma state, I give in again to temptation, turning off and following what feels like one of the loneliest stretches of tarmac on Earth through the silent “city” of 1,000 or so souls, and for a few miles farther, until repair work forces me back on to the road more travelled. But not before I’ve had a look round the local Cherokee Trading Post, which meets all the cowboy-hat, tomahawk and leather-holster needs passing motorists could ever have.
The roads leading into Oklahoma City are potholed and bumpy, but, on a quiet, sunny Sunday, Bricktown – where Oklahomans come to party in beautifully repurposed industrial buildings built around well-kept waterways – is delightful.
I have time to visit one major attraction, so head to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, a repository for all there is to know about local wars and land grabs, the massacre and humiliation of tribes, human migrations, ranching and cowboys, the devastation wrought by hunting and much more besides.
On the way in, I didn’t pay much attention to the piece of art that dominates the entrance, but having been around the museum, End of the Trail, an 18-foot statue of a defeated native warrior, proves to be an appropriate, and moving, final exhibit. Trails, migrations, journeys – few of them as enjoyable as mine or as selfish as that of Webb’s deserter – have scoured this part of the world, making it what it is today.
Almost 1,000 miles in four days is hard driving; I missed a lot between Phoenix and The Big Friendly, as Oklahoma authorities would like their city to be known. Webb’s man must have been desperate to have contemplated doing the journey in a single day.
The car used on this road trip was lent, free of charge, by Hertz. Accommodation was kindly provided by Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North and The Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City.