Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZ

2019 Grateful 47: Made in America

Wandering around Williams AZ shortly after 8 am on a Friday morning, I spotted a rare sight. A man smoking. It was such a novelty that I went to join him. We’d been stateside a week and he was maybe the third person I’d seen with a cigarette. Ah no, you say, you’re not back smoking? I’m not, but I have the odd one when I feel like it. And sure amn’t I on my holidays. Anyway, this particular cigarette would prove to be the most interesting one I’ve ever had.

Made in America, Buck WIlliams and his shop in Williams AZ

He put his out and then stuck it into a hole he’d bored into the street sign outside his shop. He uproots the signpost and empties it when it gets full. One day, he said, he put a half-lit butt inside and the others caught fire. Smoke started seeping through the hole. He told a concerned tourist who happened to be passing that it was nothing to worry about, saying the town was built on volcanic geysers and this was just a vent. He laughed heartily when he thought of the 20 minutes the chap spent taking pictures of it.

Buck Williams was born in Ohio and grew up on a working ranch in Alabama. After a stint in the Marines, he spent three years as a deputy sheriff in his home state, twenty with the LAPD, and six as a US Marshall in California. All this before spending 15 years as a train robber in Williams, AZ. Sharing the same last name as the town, his wife decided this was where they’d retire. And they did. About nineteen years ago. When you’ve spent as long as he has upholding the law, it made a change to break it. Williams was part of the staged train robbery put on for tourists travelling on the Grand Canyon railroad. Today, he’s the local gunsmith and the man to go see if you want to learn to quick draw or use a bullwhip.

He was telling me that many old Arizona laws, while not always enforced, are still on the books. If I parked in front of his signpost and he came along and wanted to tether his horse, guess who’d have to move? And if I beeped my horn at his horse, I’d be fined. And if I scared him, I could be arrested. The horse, that is. Williams would take a lot of scaring.

Lots of international tourists come to Williams, stay overnight, and then take the train ride up into the canyon. He himself has a massive Chinese fan club, thanks to being featured in a book on Route 66, written in Chinese. It went down so well, that he’s due to be featured in a second by the same author on cowboys. He’s also nabbed a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for both his fast draw and his bullwhip. He can draw a gun in 2.5 tenths of a second. I asked him why he didn’t write his own book. ‘I’m in the middle of doing nothing’, he said, ‘and I don’t want to start another project until I finish this one.’

He gave me the rundown on Williams and suggested where we should go for lunch. Himself had taken off earlier that morning to see the Grand Canyon. I’d stayed behind to feed my Route 66 memory bank. I asked Williams, given that he’s been around for a while and has lived an interesting life, what advice would he give someone starting out today. He didn’t have to think for long. ‘Learn to be responsible for yourself.’ Too many people these days take for granted what they’re told. They don’t fact check or research. They believe what their friends believe.

Just about that point in the conversation, a woman came in to mail a package with UPS (Williams is an agent for them). Her stepson was in jail in California and the only parcels they can get are from vendors. She’s tried to send it via Amazon but it came to her instead. The Amazon guy, [‘a middle-eastern fellah’, she whispered, behind the back of her hand] had emailed her a barcoded label that only UPS shops, not the franchises, had the wherewithal to read. Williams told her she’d have to drive the 40 miles to the nearest UPS in Flagstaff. They chatted, her animatedly, he calmly. She didn’t want to make the drive and had come in royally ticked off with Amazon and her stepson both, venting her spleen, but she left smiling. All in the space of two minutes.

Made in America, Buck Williams, Williams AZ

Williams took a framed photo from the wall and proudly pointed out his son. He was in the US Coastguard and had been an honour guard for four years when Clinton was in office and spent 17 years as a rescue swimmer. A life so very different from the stepson in jail.

Aside from his love of cowboys and guns, Williams has a love of words. He told me how easy it was to understand modern-day politics – poly meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking pests. He recited one of his cowboy poems for me that knocked me sideways with the punchline. I wish I’d been able to record him but traffic was picking up and his regulars were popping in for coffee. He keeps a coffee pot on the go and it seems like anyone’s welcome.

Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZHe put on his hat for another photo and went on to tell me how to read a cowboy hat. If it’s white or light-coloured, they work somewhere sunny and hot. If it’s high-domed, they work somewhere that gets rain and/or snow. If there’s a cord around the crown, they’ve been in the armed forces – the different colours represent different sections. And his, he said, told me that he was right-handed. This stumped me until he pointed out that the left side of the brim was slightly higher than the right – this was from tipping his hat to the ladies. His right hand would always be on his gun.

And tip his hat he did. I was ma’amed a lot and I loved it. Buck Williams was made in America. He’s a real character who says that if you leave his shop without a smile on your face, it’s because he’s thrown you out. I left laughing. If you ever find yourself in Williams, AZ, pop in and say hi. Buck’s Place. 117 W Route 66, Suite 145, Williams AZ. You’ll be glad you did. And I’m grateful that I had that cigarette. Thanks’ Buck. You’re a gem.

 

For more on the Grateful series, check the blog.

For more on travel in Arizona, check out www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

 

Valentine's Day, London Brige, Lake Havasu

A Valentine’s Day to remember

Sad really. Neither of us could remember what we’d done for the last three years on Valentine’s Day. Nothing memorable obviously. Himself would rate himself as more of a romantic than not, but perhaps in thought rather than in deed. Pragmatic runs to my core – romance is the stuff movies are made of. That said, I always appreciate flowers, no matter the occasion, but having surreptitiously checked whether a dozen long-stemmed roses would fit in the console of the rental car, I nixed even voicing that wishpectation.

We set out from Palm Desert California this morning shortly after 8 am expecting to be in Williams Arizona by 3 at the latest. We planned to see the iconic Route 66 town and then have dinner somewhere special. That was the plan. When we left, it was teeming with rain. The electricity was cutting in and out. And the day was shaping up to be quite miserable. We opted for the longer route along the Colorado River as the shorter one involved windy roads through a mountain pass and given the infrequency of heavy rain in the area, I didn’t trust the local drivers to stay in the lanes or the runoff to stay off the road – flash flood warnings in effect for the day.

Valentine's Day General George Patton Museum Chiriaco Summit

We stopped for breakfast at Chiriaco Summit around 9.15 and lost two hours there at the fabulous General Patton Museum. It was so great that it deserves a post of its own, and that’s saying something, as I’m not a great lover of big guns and bigger tanks.  We thought we’d gotten ahead of the bad weather, but by the time we surfaced, it had caught up with us.

Valentine's Day, London Bridge, Lake Havasu

We were headed to Lake Havasu to see the famous London Bridge. A bridge that once spanned the River Thames in London was taken apart, stone by stone, shipped to the USA, hauled to Arizona, and put back together again.  It was purchased by Robert P. McCulloch (him of the lawn and garden machine fame – we have one of his strimmers) for $2,460,000 on 18 April 1968 from the City of London. The things some people do with their money. It took until 1971 for it to be completed and since then has been a major tourist attraction. We lucked out. We got the bridge and the British weather. It was pouring. And cold. But not as cold as it would get.

We stopped for lunch and looked at the map to see the quickest way to get to where we were ultimately heading. We were now about 2 hours behind schedule. I noticed Route 66 was an option and on it, the little town of Valentine. I figured that if we went to Valentine on Valentine’s Day, we’d never forget what we did on 14 February 2019. We decided to decide when we got to Kingman.

 

Valentine's Day, Freeway entrance to 40E

And it took an age to get there. The low-lying fog/cloud you can see is the rain we had to drive through. Us and every articulated truck that had anywhere to go other than home. It was nasty. But when the rain eased off a little, the desert colours were gorgeous. Pinks, yellows, greens, purples, and every possible shade of brown.

By the time we got to Kingman, we’d copped that we’d lost an hour having crossed a timeline somewhere along the way. There was no way we’d get to Williams in daylight so we decided to take the high road and head across on Route 66.  I love driving that road. The mother road. I feel other-worldly when I do.

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

When we got to Valentine, we pulled up beside the sign. Another van was parked there. We figured they’d had the same idea. Turns out, it was a TV station from Phoenix who’d come expecting to find something going on. But it was still raining heavily and it was cold and there was no one but us around. They’d visited the general store in Hackberry and had then wandered around Valentine itself before parking at the sign waiting to see if anyone would stop by. We asked Kim Powell, the reporter, if she’d mind taking our photo. I know, I know. I don’t often do it, but given the day and given the place, I simply had to. Anyway, she did. And as one good turn deserves another, she asked if she could interview us. Sure, it’d have been rude to refuse. It’s pretty safe to say that if we did make the telly, no one we know would be watching. But we did… or at least the web.

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

It got dark somewhere on the Hualapai Indian reservation. We rolled into Williams about 8 pm and it looks quite the quaint little town. But after 12 hours on the road, I was ready for my prime rib dinner. Turns out though, our hotel restaurant didn’t quite stretch that far and it was too wet and too cold to go wandering. So I settled for a French dip. But I’m on a promise. Prime rib is something that needs crossing off my list before I leave.

So, from General Patton and his tanks to a relocated London Bridge, to the sleepy town of Valentine, it was certainly a day to remember. Oh, and yes. I did get chocolates. A box of maltesers from a truck stop on 95N. The boy knows me well.

 

A hole in the ground

Why, I asked. Why would you want to see the Grand Canyon – it’s just a massive hole in the ground. That said, I did take that detour to see meteor crater, so that in itself makes me a bit of a hypocrite. And I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since the early 1990s and back then, when I looked over the edge it was impressive, yes. But I’ve been more impressed by smaller stuff.

IMG_6300 (800x600)On the website, the tour looked amazing. Ah the power of advertising and advertorials. Collected from hotel in Vegas, bussed to airport to catch a plane, then a helicopter, then rafting down the Colorado River, then lunch with the Indians and then back to the hotel via plane and bus. A little over seven hours in total. What wasn’t to like? If you’re going to do something, I say, do it in style.

IMG_6336 (800x600)That I was on the wrong side of the plane going out and didn’t see the Hoover Dam was a tad upsetting and no one’s fault but my own. We were weighed and seated according to weight. That the helicopter ride took all of ten minutes (at a stretch) was a little disappointing. That the rafting was more like a sedate float down the river without shade in 117 degree weather was a trifle discomfiting. That the lunch was bagged salad, frozen veg, packet mash, and a piece of chicken was torturous. All in all, having been picked up at 6.30 am, we’d done it all by 10.30 and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 3. Tired, cranky, and feeling more than a little cheated.

IMG_6334 (800x599)On reflection – was the tour worth it? Absolutely not. Next time (and I’d go again to this huge hole in the ground) I’d drive. And take my time. And pack my own lunch. I’d do the helicopter thing again – but for longer – and only that. Mind you, there were so many choppers in the sky it is a wonder more accidents don’t happen. Apparently someone falls into it every 2-3 months and in a country where Health and Safety are king and queen, there wasn’t a railing in sight. Great for the natural look, I say. Not so great for human stupidity. But the view the from air was magnificent.

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IMG_6339 (800x600)The canyon is 4 to 18 miles wide (6 – 28km) and is 277 river miles long (445km). In places it’s half a kilometre deep. It’s tilted – the northern rim is 1200 ft higher than the southern rim. It took the Colorado River 3-6 million years to carve it out (there’s patience for you!) Over 800 million gallons of water flow through it each day.

IMG_6343 (800x600)I listened to the facts being recited, by rote, both on the recorded spiel on the plane and by the boat guy, and then looked at those walls and wondered at the power of nature. How could we ever think, as mere mortals, that we could tame her?

I’ve spent many an afternoon on the flat of my back on the grass looking up at the clouds in the sky, fancying that I see a pig or a boat or a slice of pizza. I like to do the same with rocks and boulders, and when in South Africa a couple of years ago, I became all too familiar with the Lion Rock  and how deceptive nature’s shapes and shadows can be. So the highlight for me was Eagle Point and the fantastic natural shape of the rock.  That made it all worth while.

IMG_6367 (800x598)The outdoor exhibition of various Indian huts was interesting enough. But my heart went out to the trio who were dancing a tribal dance to an empty amphitheatre. Somewhere along the line, the lines between tourism and taste were crossed. There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience. And while I would like very much to take part in a real Indian dance night, this was just a tad too twee, even for me.

IMG_6377 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6382 (800x600)And yet, had I been there sans the masses, and had I the quiet and the solitude all to myself and a few crows, it would have been quite special. But that’s the Catch 22, isn’t it. Discover and share – or keep to yourself and enjoy.

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From the Danube to the desert – a church on the move

Before the aura reader told me that I should visit the solar plexus vortex, I’d already been. I can’t say I was strangely drawn to it for any reason out of the ordinary. It’s at the site of a church and I’m drawn to churches. Solar plexus or no solar plexus. And this church is a little more unusual than most in that the plans were drawn up long before the site was found and it was originally meant to be built in Budapest. Small world.

IMG_6077 (600x800)Way back in 1932,  a woman by the name of  Marguerite Brunswig Staude was looking at the Empire State Building in New York. Somewhere, in this edifice, she saw a cross. And from this got the idea of building a church that would also have a cross as its core. She showed her design to Llyod Wright and he worked on it with her to further develop it. In 1937, they were ready, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was to be built in Budapest, Hungary, overlooking the Danube.

IMG_6078 (800x566)But the war came and the dream shattered. But she got to thinking… why not built such a shrine in the USA? Why should Europe have a monopoly on shrines? It would take 24 years for her dream to come true but finally, on a spur 250 feet high that sticks out of a 1000 foot rock wall, Marguerite built her church in Oak Creek, Sedona. Her wish? That the Church might come to light in the souls of men. And so it did, in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution.

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Saddened by Sedona

Shop after shop. Mall after mall. Even the outskirts, 20 minutes from the main drag, were joined to the centre by an arterial ribbon of mini-malls, fast-food joints, and gas stations. Yes, it’s all tastefully done. The planners have kept a firm hold on what can and can’t be built in the city of Sedona, but for me it’s lost a lot of its magic.

IMG_6052 (800x590)You can barely see the houses nestling in the foothills, so well do they blend in with their surrounds. Hardware shops in this part of the world don’t do much trade in pastel paints, unlike the West of Ireland or the Venetian island of Burano or the Spanish city of Las Palmas. Here, it’s all muted tones and autumnal palettes. And for that one has to give thanks.

IMG_6091 (800x599)IMG_6096 (800x523)Downtown, once you escape from the main drag, the Tlaquepaque shopping village, originally conceived as an artists’ community, appears to have been around a lot longer than it actually has. A child of the 1970s, these 40 or so shops and galleries look like they’ve taken residence in a hundred-year-old village. There are many European planners who could learn a lesson or two in Sedona.

IMG_6100 (800x600)The main street itself though, leaves a lot to be desired. Overpriced food, half-assed cocktails passing themselves off as Margueritas (beware the newborn expert), and shelf after shelf of sameness was a far cry from what I remembered.

IMG_6103 (800x600)Sedona is famous for its vortexes… and yes, I have that pluralisation correct… in Sedona one vortex, two vortexes. We’d passed a few dust devils as we’d travelled across the Sonora desert, and knew vaguely that a vortex ‘is created from spiraling motion of air or liquid around a center of rotation’. Usually, that is. In Sedona, they’re created from ‘spiralling spiritual energy’. So it’s little wonder that the place is a magnet for new age therapists, mediums, aura readers, and such like. And yes, there was a time I’d have been right there in the midst of it all. But that was then.

I no longer feel the need to know the future – why live through the disappointment twice. But I did have my aura read (and photographed) just to see if my chakras were all open and in good working order. I got a clean bill of health. Lots of white and blue light. Am relatively sane and have a bevvy of spirits working in the wings guarding me night and day. What’s not to like about that?

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Too much to hope for?

Eons ago, when I was an avid Enid Blyton fan, I’d go play in the field behind our house. It had a hole in the ground that to me was huge. Not quite as big as meteor crater, but to my little mind, it was big enough to map. To explore. To get lost in. Me and my neighbour would spend hours there. She always got to be Julian because she was the oldest. I got to be Dick. Neither of us was much interested in being Ann or George and we didn’t have Timmy the dog or bottles of ginger beer. But we had fun.

A few years back, on a whim, I climbed through the ditch at the back of the field and went looking for my crater. It was tiny. So small that I couldn’t really believe I’d ever thought it to be so huge. Memory does that to us. Time does it, too. As does distance. We tend to make things bigger and better than they ever were. Old relationships become sadly perfect. Events become grander. Holidays become more amazing. Few, if any, memories, ever stay true to what actually happened, each one coloured by the prism of the experiences and perspectives that followed.

IMG_6050 (800x600)I’m like that with places. It had been about 20 years since I’d turned a corner in Sedona, Arizona, and been gobsmacked by the redness of it all. The rocks, standing tall and magnificent, daring anyone and everyone to do their damnedest to move them or get past them. And in the midst of the barren landscape, tiny shrubs taking root, as if in challenge. The opening lines of John Donne’s No man is an island came to mind.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main

IMG_6071 (598x800)Mile after mile of red rock bespeckled with the occasional daub of green stretched before us. Just outside the city limits of Sedona, the world was as I had remembered it. As awesome and as beautiful as it was 20 years ago.

IMG_6028 (800x600)The average age hasn’t changed much. With 10 000 year-round inhabitants, the means still stands at 50. But the diversity comes from the millions of tourists who visit every year. I knew it would be too much to hope that the town itself had remained unchanged – that it still had the one main street with a hodge-podge of artisan shops, a hand or two of tarot readers and the faint purple glow of some new age auras. But still, I hoped.

A gaping big hole in my education

What happens when a piece of an asteroid traveling at 26,000 miles per hour crashes into planet Earth? It leaves a big hole. A very big hole. A hole that is  2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.

IMG_6011 (800x599)That all this happened approximately 50,000 years ago is neither here nor there. It’s all been scientifically validated and proven beyond doubt that Meteor Crater, in Arizona, is ‘the most well known, best preserved meteor crater on Earth’. That I’d never heard of it is neither here nor there either. Put that down to me not paying attention in Geography class. But like the millions of other tourists that can’t resist the signage off the I40, I had to go have a look.

IMG_6017 (800x600)Now, I suppose if you’re a space fanatic, a mineralogist, or a geologist, you might get a kick out of it. I’m firmly in the ‘oh, it’s a hole in the ground’ category. Yes it’s impressive, in its own way but it just didn’t do it for me.

I have trouble dealing with time in such great numbers. Anything BC is beyond my limited imagination. Fifty thousand years ago is way too far back to have any impact on my life, at all. It’s a little like temperature. Anything over 25 degrees Celsius is hot. Anyone over 5.10 is tall. My sense of scale leaves a lot to be desired.

IMG_6001 (800x600) (800x600)Until I got to thinking what would happen if some similar piece of stuff hit the Earth tomorrow. What devastation would result from a collision that had the energy of more than 20 million tons of TNT? Is there any part of the world so remote that the damage to human lives wouldn’t be off the charts? And would we see it coming? Or would it be all over before we knew what had hit us?

The mind boggles. Science is boggling. And for the 30 minutes of ‘what ifs’ that ensued, coupled with a repeated resolve to leave nothing unsaid in this lift lest a little piece of rock is already hurtling on its way,  it was worth the detour.

The mother road

I finally got to drive Route 66. Not all of it, just a short stretch, but enough to feel the magic. Dubbed the ‘Mother Road – the road of flight’ by the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this narrow, two-lane road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (2448 miles in all) and, for the most part, runs parallel with Interstate 40.

IMG_5415 (800x591) (800x591)IMG_5835 (600x800) (600x800)Route 66 0pened on 11 November 1926 in Springfield, MO. Back in the 1930s, it was the path to freedom for many from Oklahoma who went west, dodging the clutches of the Dust Bowl. It has been immortalised by writers like Jack Kerouac. It has been a source of wonder and inspiration for comedians like Billy Connolly. But in the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness and on 27 June 1985, it was decommissioned, no longer an official US highway. It hasn’t gone away, though, and while it might not be ploughed by snow ploughs during the winter or patrolled by Highway Patrol year ’round, the Mother Road is still very much alive and kicking – and as the t-shirts and fridge magnets declare, many still get their kicks on Route 66.

IMG_6263 (800x600)Like much of the rest of my world (Ireland and Hungary), many small towns thrived from the traffic the route brought. But then, as infrastructure upped a notch or five and freeways and highways and motorways were built, the lifeblood of these small communities was choked at source. In the USA, it was Eisenhower, who in 1956, inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, began the move to make US highways more efficient. Route 66 was what might be called collateral damage. Now, instead of booming centres of commerce, Route 66 is dotted with tacky souvenir trading posts, fast-food joints, and petrol stations.  There is the occasional gem, though, like Joseph’s Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

IMG_5408 (800x600)Here, in 1956, a WWII veteran by the name of José Campos, opened La Fiesta drive-in, which developed into a full-service restaurant within a couple of years. Handed down to the next generation of Campos in 1985, it blossomed under the banner ‘Joseph’s Bar & Grill’. Now home to a gift shop, the restaurant is what any tourist would expect of an American diner. It has struck the right note between tacky and nostalgic and the food is as comforting as diner cooking should be.

IMG_5403 (800x600)It doesn’t stand on ceremony – come in your curlers! This couple, in their eighties, were making their way north to see their kids and were a tad concerned about the possibility of running into wildfires. But they’d resolved to go as far as they could go. Hats off to the tenacity of older Americans, whose ‘live it while you can’ attitude would put many a more delicate European to shame.

IMG_6269 (600x800)Route 66 may have been decommissioned but it still hasn’t lost its magic. Along this very same road hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to better lives. Today, motorbikes and RVs and clapped-out cars make the trip as their drivers search amidst a nostalgic haze for life as it used to be. There’s something so romantic about ‘doing Route 66’ – something I’ve had on my bucket list since I first read Jack Kerouac. And now that I’ve had a taste, the notion has cemented a place in my top 5 things to do before I die – preferably on a Harley.

IMG_5995 (600x800)It’s a treasure of oddness and eccentricity. It’s the home of the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX,  the Continental Divide between Brannigan and Parks, AZ, and the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, AZ.  There’s also the Amboy Shoe Tree in California, the steady demise of which chronicles the demise of the route itself. Off to the side, American Indians trade their wares. The crafts of local artisans battle for space with Chinese imports. Billboards line the highway urging travellers not to miss the biggest and the best, each one promising something it can  never hope to deliver. Yet the plight of towns like Amboy are a grave reminder of the price of progress.

IMG_5983 (800x600)Despite efforts to protect America’s first paved highway, Route 66 now features on the Top 100 Most Endangered Sites to Watch – courtesy of the World Monuments Fund. With just 85% of the road still drivable, perhaps I’d better up the ante a little and promote this trip to top of my list.