Road Trip to Utah - part 1

Early last summer, a good friend and I headed to Utah on our annual “Mancation.” Mancation is what we call a vacation taken together by 2 heterosexual men – leave the women-folk and children behind and go somewhere to do manly stuff. Having been married to our respective wives for lo these many years now and especially since we both retired, the women we belong to don’t seem to be very upset when we go on these sojourns. As a matter of fact, every few months they are kind enough even to strongly suggest it’s time for us to have another Mancation!

Having packed up the truck the night before, we left early on a Monday morning (yes, 8:30 is early for us. Hello - retired!) from his home in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. We drove almost 2 whole miles before deciding we were hungry and should eat breakfast before we hit those long, lonesome Texas roads. The next IHOP we came to took care of our hunger and with a coffee to go, off we were.
We made good time getting to Amarillo and caught Interstate-40 to keep going west at a good clip. Having not seen each other for several months the first couple of hours were spent in conversation talking about football, cars, what was going on in the kid’s lives, politics and complaining about getting old and the various ailments that come with that. Easy conversation between good friends, randomly jumping from one topic to the next and back again. Once on I-40, the mind-numbing sameness of the interstate gradually brought us both down from our beginning-a-trip adrenalin high. We fell into a comfortable quietness as we drove on and on, mile after mile through the flat, seemingly endless west Texas landscape.

Route 66 Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico
475 miles and nine hours after leaving Dallas, we came to Tucumcari, New Mexico and decided that was far enough for one day. We found a very reasonably priced room at the Historic Route 66 Motel on Tucumcari Blvd. The decent-sized rooms were wonderfully retro with a 1950’s/1960’s vibe and very clean with comfortable beds, plenty of hot water for showers, a TV and a nearby restaurant that served good grub. What more could a couple of guys want?! Tired from driving all day, we turned off the lights at 10:00pm and crawled into our beds. The last thing said before we drifted off to sleep was, “These sheets smell good.” “Yeah, they do.” The next thing I knew, it was morning.
After checking out of the motel and a quick breakfast, we got back on I-40 still heading west. 175 miles later came Albuquerque, where we topped off the truck with gas and got a couple of large Cherry Limeades to go from that seemingly everywhere road trip fast food staple, Sonic. Excellent cups that keep their crunchy ice frozen and your drink cold for hours! I can't remember a road trip I've taken that didn't have multiple stops for drinks at Sonic.

Continuing west on I-40 for an hour outside of Albuquerque, we came to the town of Laguna on the Laguna Indian Reservation. The interstate takes a little dip to the south here whereas Route 66 continues almost in a straight-line west for a few miles. Just for something different to see, we decided to take Route 66 until it meets back up with I-40. To tell the truth, the scenery wasn’t much different, but the pace sure slowed down once we were on Route 66. Just being on “The Mother Road” seems to evoke a nostalgic feeling of yesteryear, a time we think of as being more innocent and better than the here and now. (check out our Route 66 trip here.)

Within a few miles, we entered the community of Casa Blanca, one of those middle-of-nowhere places populated by a few hard-working folks making it through life as best they can. Surprisingly, there was a Dairy Queen right there in the middle of nowhere so we decided to stop and give them some business. Dairy Queen is known for having decent, but not great food – food perfect for a quick stop along the way, but the burgers and fries we got were actually really good. The service was friendly, the place was clean – even the restroom smelled lemony-fresh. It was a nice stop.

While talking over our Dairy Queen burgers, we discovered neither of us had ever seen Shiprock (the mountain, not the town) in person, which we had both heard about and seen in old west movies and we were less than 200 miles from it. Looking at the map, we decided instead of going up NM-170 out of Farmington into Colorado, we would stay on NM-64 to the town of Shiprock and then head south-southwest from there to the mountain. On Mancation, we usually have an ultimate destination, but no time limit to get there and the route and things to see along the way are open to whatever strikes our interest so this decision fit right in. Unfortunately, we ran into a little bit of unwanted excitement on this particular detour.

Here comes the dust!
All was good until just after we passed through the town of Shiprock. While driving along minding our own business, out of nowhere came an epic dust storm, a dust storm like neither of us had ever seen before. We could see it coming toward us, but we were still shocked at the intensity as all that sand came barreling in on howling winds. We kept going, but had to slow down to creep speed. Many cars and a lot of big trucks pulled off to the side of the road. For mile after mile, the sand obscured our vision and the wind blew so hard it felt like our truck would be blown off the road. Eventually it died down and through the gloom in the distance we could see our target.

We had to turn off the highway onto a smaller road and then onto a rough Navajo Indian Reservation dirt road. We saw no one else, not a car, not a person, not even a horse for several miles as we travelled down this almost-washed-out path of a road. The landscape was of a huge, wide-open, stark place. There were no trees to break up miles and miles of nothing much, but there was a stark beauty about it. I've always appreciated land like this and found it to be awe inspiring and conducive to quiet introspection.

Geographically speaking, Shiprock is a monadnock, a term meaning "a mountain or rocky mass that has resisted erosion and stands isolated in an essentially level area." The term perfectly describes Shiprock. After watching it for what seemed like forever as it got closer and bigger in our windshield, we finally made it to the wide base. After coming to the end of the dirt road, we had to park and walk a few minutes to get up to the huge fragmented rock that rises 1,583 feet above the flat plain. Standing at the base ensures you feel very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Along the way, we saw 6 young native-Americans in a group sitting on a couple of jutting rocks, a couple of girls and 4 boys. They kept staring at us, not smiling, as we were passing by within about 50 yards of them. Here we were, 2 white dudes with a couple of nice expensive cameras around our necks on their land, far from anywhere in a very desolate area with nobody else around for miles. I’m not embarrassed to admit we were a bit nervous. About the time we got even with their position though, one of the girls smiled and waved and a couple of the guys gave friendly nods of their heads and none of them made any moves toward us so it seemed ok to go on. I think they were just having fun with "the white tourists." We rounded an outcrop of rock and after walking around exploring for about an hour, we came back the same way and they were gone. We never saw any cars or horses or any other way for them to arrive at such a lonely, out-of-the-way place, but they were nowhere to be seen. Very strange, but just another Mancation adventure on the road!

Shiprock as the sandstorm calmed
After carefully and slowly making our way back down the very rutted dirt road to pavement, we headed north on Hwy 491. This used to be the infamous Hwy 666, known as "The Devil's Highway" and "Highway to Hell." Considered to be one of the most famous roads in North America, the whole 200 miles of it is reputedly very haunted. Strangely, until the Highway Department changed the number from 666 to Hwy 491 in 2003, there was a much higher than average number of accidents and deaths that occurred on this stretch that no one has ever been able to explain. After the numbers were changed, the number of accidents and deaths immediately dropped to coincide with the national average. Some say the high number of accidents and deaths occurred because of the evil that was rumored to reside on and around the road. Many say after the renaming, the drop in accidents and deaths was because individuals no longer experienced the psychological fear that something bad would happen to them while traveling down a highway numbered 666. Some, though, claim the number 491 fails to lure the same evil spirits that are said to lurk along this highway in the same manner that the number 666 does.
(file photo)
Fortunately, nothing untoward happened to us even though we didn't make it to Cortez, Colorado until after dark. We found an Econo Lodge that had a room with 2 beds at a good (read "cheap") rate with a Denny's right across the street. Plenty good enough for a couple of tired guys who just wanted some food, a shower to get the sand washed off  and a safe place to get a few hours sleep. After checking in, we walked across the street and had breakfast for supper. Not the best food I've ever had, but not bad either and it filled the hole in my tummy.
After showers, we crawled in our beds and turned off the lights. Can't tell you if the TV worked cause we never turned it on.

The next morning we jogged across the street to Denny's again for a biscuit & gravy and sausage breakfast. We were served by Deedee, a cute young lady with several of the top buttons on her uniform open. She certainly knew how to smile and "friendly flirt" with a couple of past-their-prime, road tripping guys in order to get a good tip. The service was attentive, the interaction was fun and the food was good. After Deedee provided us with coffee's-to-go, we left a generous tip and headed toward our next stop - Mesa Verde National Park.

(continue to part 2)