Everyone’s heard the lyrics – this monster hit song co-written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey and released on The Eagles’ debut album in 1973. It put the whistle-stop town of Winslow Arizona on the map and has created huge business for merchandise with T-shirts, keychains, posters and hats bearing “Take it Easy”, “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Route 66” imprints.
The backstory of this song is intriguing. Jackson Browne’s car broke down in Winslow and as he was waiting to get back on the road, he noticed a number of attractive young women driving pick-up trucks – a Western phenomenon he found “damn sexy.” It inspired a song, but he wrestled with the lyrics and just couldn’t find what he was trying to say. His friend Glenn Frey took a run at it and added the critical lines,” it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me. ” Bingo. Browne loved the lyrics and “Take it Easy” was born.
Forty-six years later, tourists line up to pose for photos beside the statue commemorating Jackson Browne’s fortuitous stop in Winslow. It would appear from the second-floor mural that the girl in the flat-bed truck did more than slow down.
The main street of Winslow is the old Route 66 – The Mother Road.
Like many American Main Streets – there is a look, and definitely worth slowing down for.
For some reason, this sign just struck me as being absurd – “The Good Job” award. Not “Great“, not “Best of” – just “Good.” Is this the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission’s version of a kindergarten participation award? (“They coloured within the lines”.)
There are Remembrance Gardens all over the United States – pieces of metal beams from the wreckage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 have been donated to create permanent memorials. The one in Winslow is especially poignant as it also flies the flag that was at the Pentagon before the attacks.
We all remember where we were that day and it is wrenching to touch these beams and wonder what part of what tower they came from.
It is also wrenching to read the hopeful words “we will not fear terrorism” and understand how far away the United States is from realizing that hopeful goal. Rising white supremacy, racism, hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, ramped-up border tensions – they all point to a country who is more fearful than ever – it is still looking over its shoulder.
Winslow is a major railway centre – we have heard that up to 100 trains go through in a day; Amtrak still runs two passenger trains a day. The train whistle is such an evocative sound; we enjoyed listening to the rumble of the trains from our campground just a few miles away.
The Santa Fe Railway was the cornerstone of travel in the Southwest until 1996, when they ceased operation.
During those years, a number of fine hotels sprang up on the route – the brainchild of Fred Harvey – who wanted to provide travellers with decent food and accommodation.
Renowned American architect Mary Colter designed both the Winslow train station and the signature Fred Harvey hotel – the famed La Posada – the finest hotel on Route 66. Everyone from John Wayne to Dorothy Lamour to Albert Einstein stayed there.
Fred Harvey was fussy about keeping high standards for his hotels and when he became exasperated with the male waitstaff, who often brawled and boozed and came to work hung-over, he fired them all and decided to hire women – unheard of at that time. He put out ads for “women of high character“, and offered room, board, a decent wage and “liberal tips.” This was a clarion call for adventurous (yet respectable) young women and Fred Harvey’s staffing challenges were over. The “Harvey Girls“, as they were affectionately known, were well trained and disciplined. Fred Harvey and his “Harvey Girls” were credited with civilizing the West.
Winslow was on the map for bigger and better things until Route 66 was bypassed and the town abandoned. La Posada sat empty for years and then became offices until the railway decided to tear the building down. Entrepreneurs Allan Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion rescued the building in 1997 and took years to restore it and bring it well beyond its former glory.
Tina Mion is an internationally-acclaimed artist. She painted this image of her dear friends, Ruby McHood, (on the left offering tea and wearing the Harvey Girls uniform), and Dorothy Hunt on the right. They are two of the original Harvey Girls. Wouldn’t you love to have tea with them and listen to their stories?
La Posada is a delight to visit – we planned to drop by for 15 minutes and stayed for two hours. The hotel halls are hung with Tina’s paintings – most of them portraits of such depth of feeling that you can’t look away. I love paintings that create ambiguity and confusion and are open to interpretation. We actually bumped into Tina as she was walking her poodle up the stairs of the hotel. She stopped to talk and was quite modest about her incredible talent.
Here are just a few of her paintings:
This one, entitled “My Mother’s Wedding”.
Tina calls this painting “Two Stars“. I see two women who are angry at one another. They may be friends or sisters, but there is intimacy and rivalry and long-standing feuds.
Tina did a series on First Ladies (she got as far as Hillary Clinton). Each portrait was brilliant – capturing Rosalynn Carter’s watchful side-eye to Jimmy’s open grin; Nancy Reagan’s openly adoring gaze to her Ronnie, and this ( showcased at the Smithsonian): Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Such an eloquent expression of shock in those eyes, it takes your breath away.
In 2000, Tina painted Hillary Clinton in a fishbowl, circled by sharks. She felt Hillary was unfairly attacked for everything from her hair to her pantsuits to her ambitions. “It seemed to me the story of this woman, who lived her life in a fishbowl, was far from over.”
We didn’t head to Winslow so we could “stand on the corner” – it was a strategic location to allow us to camp for a few days and use the area as a base for a couple of day trips. Winslow ended up being a pleasant surprise – lots of history and stories we hadn’t known anything about before our arrival.
At our last campground in Cornville we were plagued with Spring Break families. Most of them were okay – excited, kids tearing around on their bikes – good happy vacation noises. On our last night, we had three or four couples get together two doors over and yell – for hours. I put in ear plugs but kept waking up and finally at close to midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went out and asked them to please keep it down. They dialled it down a touch, but only enough to prove to themselves they weren’t total jerks and yet still loud enough to prove they weren’t going to be told.
In Winslow, we camped at Homolovi State Park, which is also the site of 14th century ruins of the Anasazi people (known today as the Hopi Indians). Homolovi was the opposite of that campground in Cornville – people who love nature, who walk their dogs and stop to chat and are respectful of others. Homolovi is the campground we are always so happy to find – beautiful sunsets, train whistles, fragrant air through our open windows and even a good chance of seeing a rattlesnake.
We didn’t see a rattlesnake, but we did see remnants of the ancient village. It seems the rangers have been having a rough time with miscreant tourists for a long time.
We came upon this sign:
The evidence of holes where treasure-seekers had been digging before concentrated efforts were made to stop it.
Signs are also posted asking visitors not to remove anything from the ground – pottery shards, petrified wood, etc. We came upon dozens of collections like this one – large rocks covered with pottery shards – horizontal inukshuks.
I asked the ranger about these collections and he sighed, “Visitors are not supposed to do that – I have to go out every week and disperse the pottery.”
Petrified Forest National Park ( with Painted Desert within the park) was just an hour’s drive from our campground. I was never that excited about the Petrified Forest – great hunks of very dense, colourful logs strewn about a desert landscape – not something I would have gone out of my way to see.
But here we were – armed with a map that guided us through the 28-mile drive from north to south, with umpteen stops long the way and numerous lookouts and short hikes to enhance the experience.
Our very first Painted Desert Overlook – multi layers of basalt and sandstone and limestone that is between 207 and 225 million years old.
We hiked down this rather vertiginous path to the bottom of the canyon.
Like walking on Mars – no signs of life at all.
And we reached the Petrified Forest at the southern end of the park. After walking among the giant colourful quartz logs at a number of different stops, we had both a sense of wonder at the transformative process of millions of years, and a sense of “seen one, seen them all.” I have the same reaction to fossils and arrowheads after a while – my eyes glaze over.
This piece of petrified wood is about a foot in diameter.
This is the largest log in the park – Old Faithful.
On our way out of the park, we drove by this old Studebaker – commemorating the days when Route 66 helped to shape this part of the country. It is in alignment with the telephone poles that roughly mark the grand old highway. Just to the left is a ramp to Hwy. 40 – the new highway that bypassed so many small towns, like Winslow and left them to either wither away or find ways to revitalize.
We’ve left Arizona for a bit – we’re up in Bluff, Utah now to hike a couple of their famous parks. See you again in a few days.