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Moving On:
Seniors on the Road in the SW

by Robert Demaree


I retired from school administration in 2001 and keep up a long-standing interest in writing. My essays and poems have appeared in approximately 80 academic and literary publications.

“Why would you want to do it that way?” 

This was the response when we announced our plans for an April trip to the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. No, we were not going to fly to Albuquerque and rent a car. No, we were not going by Amtrak, or tie up whole days going on guided tours aboard a mule or ATV. Like many seniors, my wife and I wanted to see the places we wanted to see, and at our own pace. We had in mind a basic geographical outline and some of the major destinations we hoped to visit in a two-week trip by car—the Arches, for example--and with the help of books, maps and many enjoyable hours on the Internet, had identified other likely places, some previously unknown to us and a little off the beaten track. 

And so we set out from central North Carolina, two 67-year-olds in a 2000 Buick, armed with what the poet Donald Hall calls “a pleasure of place,” disposed to enjoy what lay between here and there just as much as what we found at our destination, to go places we had not gone and see things we had not seen.

We follow I-40, the new Mother Road, across Tennessee and Arkansas, to Oklahoma City, where it picks up the route of U.S. 66, the mythic American way west, celebrated by John Steinbeck and in song and 1960s TV. The interstate has been paved over much of the Route 66 path, but there are places you can see it running alongside the four-lane as a frontage road and places where it reverts to dirt. In some places the actual U.S. 66 roadway has been maintained as “Historic Route 66,” and such a stretch leads us into Elk City , Okla. , where we take in the Old Town Museum Complex.

"Old Town" Elk City, Oklahome

The complex includes a recreated cow town, a museum with numerous donated artifacts of different ages, as well as a recently opened Rodeo Museum display, and the National Route 66 Museum. The later is a fun, if not Smithsonian-grade, presentation of the Route 66 experience, replete with vintage cars and gas pumps, maps and murals, and a representation of Henry Fonda during the filming of The Grapes of Wrath. Despite the presence of some non-Dust Bowl era items such as a 1950s Chevrolet, the Route 66 museum indeed captures the mood of people moving on to better things. Tucumcari tonight!

We drive into McLean , Texas , one of many good suggestions we got from Jamie Jensen’s Roadtrip books. We concur with an Internet assessment of McLean as “a town where time stands still,” and we stop to photograph a restored vintage Phillips 66 station.

We part company with I-40 at Grants, N.M., and head down state route 53 for five days on two-lane roads in a land of overpowering beauty and timeless and intriguing cultures. At El Morro National Monument, the Inscription Rock towers over the landscape, revealing graffiti going as far back as the 17th century.  One says, “Passed by here the adelantado Don Juan de Onate from the discovery of the sea of the south ( Gulf of California ) on the 16th of April 1605 ”—we realize this was 400 years ago, to the day. A similar stunt today might expose de Onate to a $100 fine for defacing a landmark. 

After lunch in Gallup , we have to see Window Rock, if only for our fondness for Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Tony Hillerman Four Corners mystery novels. The Window Rock itself, behind some of the Navajo tribal offices, is a hole in a 200-foot high sandstone hill. Then we turn to the west on Arizona Route 264, toward Ganado and the Hopi reservation.

The Hubbell Trading Post at Ganado was established in 1878 and is both a NPS site and an active trading post, a general store that also sells the omnipresent native crafts. Recently reopened after some restoration, it also offers a tour of the homestead of Lorenzo Hubbell, trader, collector and friend and advocate for the Navajo people.

Enchanted Mesas

West of Ganado, Route 264 passes through Keams Canyon , where in 1863 Kit Carson rounded up some 8,000 Navajo for resettlement, another trail of tears, and we climb into the region of the three Hopi mesas. The Hopi reservation, with a population of about 12,000, is geographically contained within the Navajo nation, and consists of twelve villages. It is too late in the day for Walpi, probably the most spectacular of the twelve and visited only with a Hopi guide, so we go on to the Hopi Cultural Center at Second Mesa where we have overnight reservations.

The center includes a comfortable motel, restaurant, museum and crafts center, located in a rambling structure of the characteristic salmon pink adobe color. For dinner we have the traditional noqkwivi, a stew of lamb and hominy, and a “Hopi tostada” on fry bread, probably a cousin of the Navajo taco. Outstanding! The menu offers Mexican and American choices as well, but the clientele clearly opts for the indigenous cuisine. There is a Swiss family and a high school group there that night, but most of the diners are locals—this may be the only real restaurant in a 50 mile radius. Our server, Colleen, is extremely cheerful and efficient. 

The museum opens at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday and offers a thorough look at Hopi history, culture and art, including a striking display of photographs, about 75 years old, of the villages and people. These days one does not take pictures or draw sketches on Native American reservations, and at the Hopi museum one is even asked not to take notes. There are places in the Four Corners region where you can get permission and take pictures for a fee. But I would not consider that if offered, such is the value of privacy shared by the Hopi and those who visit here

We did not see Walpi but we do walk around the village of Old Oraibi on Third Mesa. There has been a community here since about 1050, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the continent. Here we meet Sidney and Sandra, who are artisans, musicians, and very welcoming hosts. We buy a CD of Sidney singing and playing Hopi music, and it occurs to us, walking around this pristine and ancient place on a quiet Sunday morning, that we are a long way from Cherokee, North Carolina. 

There seems to be among the Hopi, as in all cultures, a tension between traditionalists and those who consider themselves progressives. There is no electricity or running water in Old Oraibi, Walpi or Moenkopi (Sidney and Sandra have permission to use a generator). The Hopi have twice voted against having a casino. A long article in an April 2005 issue of the Navajo Hopi Observer, published in Flagstaff , discusses the use of water from an aquifer on Hopi land to transport coal through a 273-mile pipeline to Nevada . Many resent the diversion of water the Hopi need, but others point out that the coal company provides 80 percent of the tribe’s budget, a dollar amount which Vernon Madayesva, director of the Black Mesa Trust, termed “a drop in the bucket.” In this enchanted place the median income is well below the state average, unemployment well above. Still, one does well to remember that the Hopi were here long before Europeans (as in the coal interests, for example) came, and will, one dearly hopes, be here long after they’re gone.

The Arches, Utah

“They packed up and left…”

Fifty miles northeast of Tuba City , turn left on Arizona Route 564 for the Navaho National Monument and Betatakin Canyon , site of a well preserved Anasazi cliff dwelling. For people, like me, who had never heard of the Anasazi before the Tony Hillerman novels, a quick summary. The word in Navajo means “the ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors” and refers to a people who probably came across the land bridge from Siberia 10,000 years ago. Known more broadly as the Ancestral Puebloans, they moved from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering into farming about 2,000 years ago. They went from making baskets to making pottery, and about 700 AD began to build villages in the alcoves of the Four Corners canyons. The community at Betatakin Canyon lasted only 50 years, from about 1250 to1300. The easy one-mile Sandal Trail leads from the visitor center to an overlook offering a glimpse into the Betatakin cliff dwelling. Looking at it, I think of the haunting words in the Park Service video, how the community had experienced hard times in their agriculture, perhaps feared an attack from the outside, and then finally “one morning they packed up and left…”

Our route took us to Monument Valley, up Cedar Mesa via Utah Route 261 and the Moki Dugway (a hair-raising drive), to Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, the Arches and Canyonlands, with two nights in Moab, where you will find numerous outfitters and cycle shops, two microbreweries, the Gonzo Inn, and a wide range of restaurants, including Buck’s Grill House where you can get Buffalo Meat Loaf with Black Onion gravy ($12.50) and Elk Stew.  Downtown you’ll see bookstores selling latte, upscale galleries with Native American art, places to buy crystals and dinosaur bones ($10/lb.)

From Dead Horse Point one can see a turquoise “tailing pond” or potash solution pond, part of a mining complex. We learn that water from the Colorado River is pumped into potash mines, and we wonder if this is a popular use of the river, which has been a source of acrimonious contention over many years. It reminds us of the Hopi and the N-aquifer, and of a remark a Utah acquaintance had made, how the cattle ranchers were upset over the fees charged for grazing on government land, which represents a fair portion of the state. The tension between public and private use of the natural environment operates, like other things, on a larger scale in the West.

Georgetown, CO

Ghost Riders

We had wanted to see a western ghost town, and Cisco, Utah , was the only one convenient to our route that showed up on the Internet. It is not a typical 19th century ghost town, but it still has about it the forlorn romance of a place that has been abandoned. Abandoned not all that long ago, and perhaps not completely. Our two-lane trek ends about 30 miles west of the Colorado state line. We turn onto I-70. We are headed home.

Down out of the Rockies , we spend the night at Ogalalla , Nebr. , where a boot hill cemetery and recreated wild west Front Street are reminders of the rowdy 1870s. I stand outside our motel at dusk. A cold early spring sun settles into the prairie horizon. Silhouetted against it, trucks on I-80 and a train with its lonesome whistle. Words from The Great Gatsby come to mind, how “the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

After the Lewis & Clark center at Nebraska City , we angle south and east, along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers , and across the Ohio into Kentucky . We are at the top of Pinnacle Mountain , where three states come together, looking out over Cumberland Gap from 2,440 feet. The view is breath-taking, but that is not why we have come. My ancestors passed through here in 1787, on their way from Maryland to Kentucky and Indiana , in search of new land, new opportunity, new life. Between 1780 and 1810, some 200,000-300,000 people followed this path through the mountains to the frontier, the way west. I think of McLean , Texas , and Cisco, Utah , and, of course, the Anasazi: then finally one morning they packed up and left: the abiding restlessness—and hope—of the American spirit.

Look Homeward

After our last night on the road in Morristown, Tenn., we decide to put off getting back on I-40, perhaps wanting subconsciously to extend the trip, and so we follow an old and familiar route, U.S. 441, past the vast commercial excess of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and up through Newfound Gap. After 5,200 miles and 15 days, we are back in North Carolina . In the parking lot of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park , there are cars from Oklahoma , Colorado , Iowa . We hope they are on their way to Nags Head, to go places they have not gone, see things they have not seen. But I am trying to remember what the Lewis & Clark guy had said, how there was another good interpretive center at Council Bluffs and yet another at Yankton, South Dakota … I will get out my maps. I will Google this tonight.

Mechanics of Travel

Research and Planning

We started with some books our daughters had given us a few years ago, in the hope we might make this trip: Frommer’s New Mexico, by Lesley L. King; Road Trip USA and Road Trip USA: California and the Southwest by Jamie Jensen; Insight Guide US National Parks West. We used the American Map Road Atlas book, 2004 edition—large scale and large type. The little red squares on the map are “points of interest,” which we then subjected to a Google search. Another useful map, prepared by AAA and available at NPS locations, bears the somewhat impolitic title “Indian Country.” The AAA guide books are invaluable, of course, but they tend to direct you to the more obvious places.

Money etc.

Plastic is your best bet. Take enough cash to be comfortable. We took travelers’ checks but didn’t use them (maybe it’s time you can leave home without them). Don’t take more credit cards than you’ll use. Don’t take your social security card. Be sure your car registration and insurance papers are in order, and that you have your National Park Service “ Golden Pass ” ($10 lifetime for over 62 at any NPS location).

Our expenses: Admissions not covered by Golden Pass : $60.00. Car expense $440, including one oil change (in 2005 price/gallon for regular ranged from $2.06 to $2.38). Food $390. Motel $1,060. Extra expenses included presents for grandchildren and others, plus souvenirs. Admission charges applied at Old Town Complex/Route 66; Palo Duro Canyon; Hopi Cultural Museum; Monument Valley; Stuhr Museum; Lewis & Clark Center; Shaker museum.


We are seniors who watch calories and grams of fat, and so we will often pass up a local dish in favor of a salad from Wendy’s, McDonald’s or Burger King. One may disparage fast food as unhealthy, but the fact is that the major chains can all provide tasty and nutritious meals in the 1,800-2,300 calorie/day range. We also like motels that give you breakfast along with your room. Save your calories for your favorite Southwestern foods, including a Navajo taco and huevos rancheros. Have some burgoo coming back through Kentucky .


We aim for what we consider to be the high end of budget motels and some mid-priced locations; in 2005 we tried to get out for $55-$75 (AARP rate) plus tax, which ran from 5.6% ( Cortez , Colo. ) to 15% ( Amarillo , Tex. ).We like places that have: fitted bottom sheets and beds made up securely; refrigerator and microwave; big, thick bath towels; full cable TV service, including Braves games; buffet breakfast with skim milk We stayed at five Comfort Inns, two Hampton Inns, two Sleep Inns, one each Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Days Inn, and the Hopi Cultural Center Motel. Our favorite of the chain properties: Hampton Inn, Kayenta , Ariz. (a small luxury hotel with a large lobby done in native décor). Best values: Comfort Inn at Russellville , Ark. , and Ogallala , Nebr. Nice touch: computer with internet access in lobby for guests at Comfort Inns in Ogallala and Cortez , Colo. (Of course, everyone offers high-speed internet access for those who carry laptops etc. with them).

Special award for Best Bath Towel: Holiday Inn Express in Hannibal , Mo. It is part of a trade-marked program called Simply Smart, which also includes a shower head you can buy and take home. Program is designed to provide what the chain calls an “enhanced guest bath experience.”

Two weeks on the road: no wonder people get worked up about thread count.

Last night out, at the downtown Holiday Inn in Morristown , Tenn. : clean, nice, spacious, reasonable, the old kind of motel built around a large center courtyard, which we would have considered very elegant in 1983. We noted a couple of features (separate faucets for hot and cold water and a real chain lock on the door) which we suddenly realized were archaic.

Time Zones

Trip took us through three time zones. You gain time going west and lose it back coming east. Part of the Southwest can get a little complicated: New Mexico is on Mountain Daylight Time, but Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time. Except that the Navajo nation observes Daylight time, but the Hopi nation, enclosed by the Navajo, observes Standard, and inside the Hopi territory is another small Navajo enclave…Almost as confusing as Indiana . Fortunately it doesn’t really matter, except to be sure about check-out time. Mountain Time has much to be said for it, but Larry King Live at 7:00 p.m. would take some getting used to.

A (Very) Brief Glossary of Useful Terms

Mesa , butte, spire, fin: These are geographical and geological features that are left from eroding plateaus. A Park Service distinction we liked: Mesas are wider than they are tall, buttes taller than they are wide. Spires and fins are what are left of buttes, as are arches which wore a funny way.

Open Range : Means watch for animals (more than deer; mostly cows) on the roadway, often in states where private cattle are grazing on public lands. Be extremely careful—a cow hit is much worse than a deer hit, if only in that a cow belongs to someone. On our trip, these signs appeared mostly on back roads in Utah and Colorado .

Kiva:  Pueblo Indian ceremonial structure that is usually round and partly underground

Cryptobiotic: The cryptobiotic crust of desert soil is an ancient covering of cyanobacteria (look that one up!), lichen, algae and fungi, which prevents erosion and provides nutrients for plant life. In all the parks you’ll see signs saying “It’s alive.” Translation: stay on the trail!

Balneology: the scientific study of therapeutic benefits of naturally occurring mineral waters.

Be Sure To Take With You

Golden Pass, medications (so you don’t run out the day you get home), glass cleaner, paper towels, weather radio, small thermos, bottled water, chapstick, cooler, favorite foods they might not have at motel (e.g.., fat-free cream cheese, your brand of coffee), walking shoes, hat, cell phone, flash light, first-aid kit.

What to Wear

Dress in layers: polo shirt, sweatshirt/sweater, windbreaker. Did not see many neckties west of the Mississippi (maybe a few in Santa Fe ). Average high & low temperatures for states on route: Arkansas , Oklahoma , Texas : high in70s, low in mid 40s; New Mexico , Utah , Colorado : high in 60s, low around 40 (30s in higher elevations)

Car and Driving

In some western states regular gas is 85 or 86 octane. Not to worry—2000 Buick did fine! Oil change at Lube Express in Moab , Utah . Quick & efficient.

The Next Time We Pass This Way…

We’ll try to get to the top of Acoma ( Sky City ), N.M. and Walpi village in the Hopi country. Visit Zuni when the A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum is open. Other things we’d like to see: Capitol Reef, Canyon de Chelly, Gouldings Trading Post, Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph , Mo. , Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville , Ill. , and Route 66 Museum in Clinton , Okla.

Is April a Good Time to Go?

We thought so—the trade-off is the absence of summer crowds against the weather risk and that fact that some locations, such as Mesa Verde and the Stuhr Museum , may not have all programs fully operational. We were lucky on the weather. It would be sad to be at the Arches on a rainy day, or to get caught in a blizzard on I-70 in the Rockies . The snow stays on the highest peaks September through July—another reason to choose April instead of August. Possibility of volatile weather in the plains states.


The Southwest is a great place for your sinuses and arthritis, but problems with the high altitude (called, menacingly, Acute Mountain Syndrome) can take people by surprise. Basically, it’s a matter of taking in less oxygen with you air you breath. At altitudes of 8,000 feet and higher, some will experience shortness of breath, headaches, loss of appetite and lethargy. According the AAA guide for Colorado and Utah , you should acclimatize gradually if possible, eat light, nutritious meals and drink plenty of water. Another interesting antidote—high carb foods! You’ll get plenty of exercise—we walked about three miles a day and arrived home feeling great.

Rest Areas Rated

Adequate to good: Arkansas and Oklahoma

Good to very good: Missouri , Nebraska (nice historical and geographical info), Colorado (plentiful but some involve exiting from the interstate)

Outstanding: Tennessee (live weather radar monitor!) and Texas (near Groom, rest area with very interesting wind farm display, a mini-museum).

Senior travelers know to be wary of interstate rest areas at night.

Things to Avoid

Approaches to major cities on interstate highways. They all look alike, even with different backdrops: on the far edges, you have the mobile home dealers, the mammoth car lots, and places selling dinettes, doors, mattresses, leather furniture; then you have the power centers, shopping centers, strip malls, interspersed with fast food, convenience stores, oil change places, and finally, if you’re lucky, the turnoff for the perimeter bypass. 

Unless there’s a good reason to be in a big city, senior travelers will do better at motels outside urban centers. You don’t need to find the entrance to the motel going the wrong way down the access road.

Questions Best Left Unanswered

Why would there be not one but two large billboards on I-40 in Tennessee advertising vasectomy reversal? Think it said call a Houston phone number. And why would a scrapbooking shop need to advertise on the interstate?

What We Learned, What We liked Best: We learned a thousand facts, most of which we’ll forget. Chalk it up to a few senior moments—we still have our photos and brochures. The most important things we learned were quite general and things we’d, of course, suspected: the grandeur of the land, the openness and decency of the people. Our favorite towns included: Cities: Santa Fe (where else?); Larger towns: Hannibal , Mo. ; Towns (i.e., about 5,000 people): Moab , Utah , and Sainte Genevieve , Mo. ; Smaller towns: Georgetown , Colo. ; and very small towns (under 500): Brownville , Nebr. , and Clarksville , Mo. Would hate to single out one canyon from another. When I close my eyes at night, I see the red rocks of northern Arizona and southeast Utah .

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