Monday, May 16, 2011

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

He walked into the bar long and lean, a gun on his hip.

"Is the gun loaded?"' a journalist inquired.

"Of course it's loaded,'' he replied laconically. He wore a moustache and a big cowboy hat. Which figures, because we were in Williams, Arizona, a historic Western mining and ranching town of 3,000 on old U.S. Route 66 that bills itself as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon. The town has the restored depot of the busy Grand Canyon Railroad to bolster its credentials.

"How do you keep law and order?'' the tall stranger with the revolver was asked.

"Behave, or I'll shoot you,'' he replied.

All in fun, to be sure. The tall stranger with the revolver on his hip - unloaded, actually - and a marshal's badge on his coat was John W. Moore, the whimsically theatrical, duly elected second-term mayor of Williams. Moore takes this cowboy business seriously, along with his adopted town's heritage from Route 66, America's "Mother Road.'' It's Arizona 66 now, as the old road's role was usurped in the 1980s by Interstate 40, which bypassed Williams. Rather than give up and dry up like a tumbleweed, Williams has reinvented itself as a nostaglic tourist destination.

Thus, the old wooden bar and walls with stuffed animal heads in what signs identify as "The World Famous'' Sultana Bar, a Western watering hole opened in 1912 next to the Sultana Theatre, also "World-Famous,'' which will celebrate its centennial next year with stories and songs.

And thus, Mayor Moore, who migrated to Williams in 1986. "I wanted to see a cowboy town,'' he said, "and an old Route 66 town with muscle cars. Williams has a bit of both. We got the cowboy - that's me. And we got Route 66.''

Our group trailed after the lanky mayor, admiring his cowboy gear, as he walked along Route 66 saying hello to people he knew and likewise to people he didn't. He posed for pictures with two husky guys in Harley-Davidson shirts who were riding their motorcycles through town. Then he popped into DeBerges Saddlery & Western Wear, where one of my companions bought a fine cowgirl hat. The smell of leather drifted through the store and the workshop in back attested to the fact that they do a lot of leatherwork on-site.

Onward we strolled, past a vintage gas station that now operates as a gas-station museum, past a recreated Wild West town that looked like a movie set ("They do a lot of film work here,'' Moore said) and on down the road to Twisters Route 66 Cafe, which is decorated with 1950s-style juke-box memorabilia. I relaxed with a cherry phosphate; the chilled, sweet drink was served in an curved classic Coca-Cola glass. There was a ripe, red cherry at the bottom. It was definitely a trip back in time.

That night I bunked in the Downtowner, a nicely restored motel right on old Route 66. I spent a comfortable night there, save for the gunning engines of the motorcycle that I had glimpsed earlier, parked in the motel parking lot. I thought it was just a curosity on display. Wrong. It was in use, along with some of the muscle cars the mayor alluded to earlier. Cruising, "American Grafitti'' style, is still done.

Next morning, I ate a hearty breakfast, drank strong coffee and got back on the road.

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