I love the mountains. I spent a good part of my life in the mountains – New Mexico, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Arizona. These are the BIG mountains.
Having lived in Kentucky for the past 25 years, I hear of people that live in “the mountains of Kentucky” or heading to “the mountains of West Virginia.” In my perspective these are more like hills. But, by the broader definition, there are mountains in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Maybe even Tennessee.
When I take trips to the Western US, I always try to make an effort to get to the REAL mountains….the kind over 10,000′ tall. I love the fresh air of these mountains. I long for the spectacular views…both from below and on top.
My first ventures into the mountains were as a young boy living in New Mexico. My Dad also loved the mountains and we often took rides up to the Sandias. We would hike, take picnics and my dad always took pictures. He always took slides because he thought they were better quality.
In 1968 we moved from Dallas to Denver. While in Denver, my Dad would take us on various drives up to Rocky Mountain National Park, Mt. Evans, Pikes Peak and other mountains. As a junior high school youth I went with him for the intense hike up Longs Peak, near Boulder. This mountain hike was a first for me. I never made it to the top (since we were bogged down by a massive hailstorm in the middle of summer). But my Dad left me at the stop station and continued up with a couple of friends.
Later in life I had the opportunity to take a trip up to the top of Mt. Evans (by car). It had changed over the years, but still had the mountain goats and the thin air.
Living in Bozeman, Montana in the mid 1970s was the final straw. We actually lived up in the mountains south of Bozeman. I was hooked and still am. My goals have always been to visit America’s great mountains, mountain ranges and parks. I have been blessed to have been able to do so.
Over the years I have been to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, the Colorado Rockies, the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, the Beartooth Range and scenic drive in northern Wyoming and more. I have even been to the eastern mountains of Shenandoah, the Alleghany Highlands in Virginia (where I am as I write this!), the Ozarks in Arkansas and Missouri and the Adirondacks. They have their own wonderful scenery.
Everywhere I go I see old neon. These signs remind me of the my youthful days in the 1960s and 70s when we traveled. Alas, for many, the only signs they see are the same unoriginal fast food, gas station and motel chain signs all over the place. But, in the by gone days there were few McDonald’s and Motel 6 spots. Instead, there were the little cozy motels with the old metal chairs in the front and the unique neon signs. There were the local burger joints with their big shiny signs. And there were the drive in movie theaters and the downtown theatres with their unique names. Here is a trip down memory lane with neon I have captured along the less beaten paths and just a few comments, when appropriate.
Of all of the unique neon signs, perhaps the hotel and motel signs are the most fun and bring back the fondest memories. My first ever motel stay was in some non-descript motel in Amarillo, Texas in 1968. At the time I was only 12. It was exciting to sleep in a motel bed, see the paper covered drinking glasses, taste the strange tasting water, sit on the metal rockers on the front porch. We watched the news and stock reports on the local television and ate pancakes at a local cafe before heading to our new home in Richardson, Texas (we were moving from Albuquerque, so yes, we were on Route 66 back then).
And to round off the trip, how about one of the more famed ones….
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS
After a nice evening a a comfy motel, what is better than starting the day off with a great breakfast at a diner, a pancake house or a local cafe. The servings are always big, the mom and pop service is better than any fast food joint. Of course, while on the road you can also stop for lunch and even a big dinner, in some cases even more than you can manage if you are willing to take the chance (think Amarillo, Texas!!)
How about some burgers for lunch?
Perhaps you want to try an ORIGINAL Cozy Dog….a Route 66 Classic indeed. This one deserves two photos
Don’t want a burger or a corn dog? How about a Maid-Rite Sandwich?
Or perhaps some great authentic Bar-B-Q?
And a little Ice Cream for an afternoon treat….
Okay. So this next one is not neon. But it is certainly Vintage. And who can resist stopping for an ice cream at a place that LOOKS like an Ice Cream?
There are lots of places that you can get dinner…many of the old neon places are a combo bar/grill or bar/restaurant. And many have unique signs. Personally, I don’t drink alcohol, but I have certainly enjoyed a few good meals at some of these kinds of places.
And let’s not forget two of the most iconic vintage neon places for travelers….
Maybe you prefer something a bit more ethnic in the evening….
Or perhaps just a late night Philly Cheese Steak? How about two choices and they are just across the street from each other in the triangle….(I actually tried one at each place on the same evening – add the whiz!)
Movie Theaters, Drive-In Theaters and Music Halls
Perhaps you have had a long day on the road and need a break from motel room TV. A visit to an old drive in theater with some popcorn and thus fuzzy little speakers hanging in your window will do ya.
Too cold outside? Then there are some classic old movie theaters around that show some cool movies or maybe even will have a live band playing in them. Many of the old theaters are multi-purpose nowadays, but their old neon signs still draw you in and bring back the memories of 1960s childhood.
Following are a few classic looks with neon I have seen over the years as I travel the back roads of America.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY OTHER PLACES
Sure, I meant it when I included “Sundry” in this section. That term seems old fashioned now, but the old five-and-dime shops had “sundry” items. There were also the old drug stores that sold magazines, had fountains in the shop and they sold “sundries.”
I also include the “various” in here since there are a few odds and ends neon signs that I want to include in this section.
Now, wasn’t that just a yummy adventure through the past?
I began Day 2 of my trip from Idaho to Dallas with an early morning in Eagle, Colorado. It would turn out to be a long day and I would actually end up stopping overnight in Wichita Falls, TX due to the length of the day. Following is the route all the way to the Dallas area.
After a late night into Eagle, I had no idea what I would see when I awoke. I had an early start, at about 6:30 AM and when I walked out of the hotel, this is what I saw…
From Eagle I had to back track on I-25 heading east to Vail in order to get on US Route 24 heading south. Along the way I made a quick stop at a viewpoint in Edwards, Colorado.
I made it to US 24 south and drove through the small mountain town of Minturn, Colorado….followed a motorcycle all the way through town.
US Route 24 actually gets its start (really is the terminus) of US 24, which is predominantly an E-W highway of 1,540 miles beginning in Clarkston, Michigan and progressing west through Toledo, Ohio then through Illinois, Missouri and Kansas and eventually into Colorado.
Near Redcliff, Colorado US 24 crosses over the Eagle River on the Green Bridge, a beautiful span.
I drive into Redcliff just to see what it was all about. A nice quiet little town in a valley. A few artists and some hotels and restaurants. At 8,650 feet above sea level, Red Cliff boomed at the turn of the 20th century as a mining town with saloons, a bank, sawmills and even an opera house. The town was mapped and patented in 1883 by the U.S. government.
US 24 follows the Eagle River for many miles. When I was driving the rover was rough with all of the spring runoff. Really a wonderful sight to see.
The drive through the White River National Forest is beautiful and truly, US 24 is one of Colorado’s great scenic routes. Following are a few scenes from the drive.
Tennessee Pass is at an elevation 10,424 ft and was probably the highest point of any of my trips this year so far. The pass traverses the continental divide north of Leadville in a gap between the northern end of the Sawatch Range to the west and the northern end of the Mosquito Range to the east. It connects the headwaters of the Arkansas River to the south with the upper valley of the Eagle River to the north. The summit of the pass is the location of Ski Cooper, a ski area in the San Isabel National Forest. Most of the area is above the tree line, providing a panoramic view of the peaks of the Sawatch Range to visitors. The area was also formerly a World War II training ground for U S Army troops of the 10th Mountain Division from nearby Camp Hale. A memorial to the troops of the division is also located at the summit of the pass just a few yards from the sign pictured above.
The Sawatch Range includes eight of the 20 highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, including Mt. Elbert, 14,400 feet; Mt. Massive, 14,428 feet; Mt. Harvard, 14,421 feet; La Plata Peak, 14,368 feet and more.
After coming down into the valley I approached Leadville, Colorado. Situated at an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States (Alma, Colorado is the highest municipality). Leadville was a Silver Mining town and still houses a number of historic buildings. I spent a while driving around this beautiful town.
The Leadville Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961. It includes 67 mines in the mining district east of the city up to the 12,000 foot level, and a defined portion of the village area, with specific exclusion of various buildings. Principal historic buildings in the district are: Tabor Grand Hotel, St. George’s Church, Annunciation Church, Tabor Opera House, City Hall, Healy House, Dexter Cabin, Engelbach House, and Tabor House, as well as mining structures and small homes.
Heading south out of town I came across some unusual rocks with Boom Days written on them. I took a few photos of them, but really had no idea what it was until I was researching for this post. “Leadville Boom Days” is a Colorado Mountain Festival and historical celebration of the Old West, with gunslingers, burro races, contests of mining skill, and a street fair with over 100 food and craft booths. This annual event was selected by Colorado for documentation and preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress as a Local Legacy of national interest. It appears that the rocks are part of the Mining Skills events.
Route 24 heads west and then south out of Leadville as it continues through the mountains, with the Sawatch Range on the west and the Mosquito Range to the east. The drive heads toward the source of the Arkansas River just south of Buena Vista, Colorado.
Buena Vista is a small town but seems to draw a ton of visitors due to the thrill seekers that want to raft the rough waters of the Arkansas River.
But the main reason Buena Vista is busy, as noted above, appeared to me to be the river rafting…
There are many historic buildings in Buena Vista, but the courthouse was most scenic
And then there is the really unusual shop in the middle of town…a hoarder’s paradise. Every so often I come across these types of places and have to get a couple of shots due to their unique quirky nature…
Couldn’t resist this unique and offbeat shop….next it was south to Salida as US 24 turned into US 285 and then onto Colorado Hwy 291.
Where Buena Vista seemed like a party town – rafting and drinking – Salida, Colorado seemed more of a town focused on unique art shops and other touristy things.
According to the Salida website, the “charming downtown area, the largest historical downtown district in Colorado, is home to blocks of Victorian buildings with fantastic restaurants, inspiring galleries, tempting boutiques, outdoor sports stores, and an array of shops for kitchen, kids, books, knitters and quilters. It’s a great place to stock up or find a unique gift to take home.” And, indeed, I saw some unique things in Salida, including a giant dragon!!
And then, like so many towns, there are the old wall advertisements
From Salida it was south on US Route 50 continuing along the Arkansas River. Along the way I passed a nice buffalo statues and an elk, by a taxidermy place.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains run north and south along the east side of the Rio Grande Rift in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. In 1719 the Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde y Cosio named the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) mountains after being impressed by the reddish hue of the snowy peaks at sunrise. Blanca Peak is the highest of these mountains at 14,345 feet.
I followed US 50 all the way to Cotopaxi. This particular weekend saw much of US 50 south of here closed due to major forest fires near Canon City and the Royal Gorge. At Cotopaxi, I took a small county road (CO Cty Rd 1A) southeast across to CO Hwy 69. I am glad I did too…it was a beautiful drive along the ridges of the Northern Sangres de Cristo range. Wildflowers were in bloom everywhere and there were some spectacular mountain views.
From here it was on to Westcliffe, Colorado
Westcliffe, Colorado is a quaint little town at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town has a population of a little over 500 and is at 7,888 feet.
Out of Westcliffe CO Hwy 69 heads south towards the Wet Mountains.
There are apparently buffalo ranches nearby, but I saw no buffalo. This was the only sign of buffalo…
I entered the small town of Gardner, Colorado. This is another historic little town. It has a unique little food store known as the “H Food Store” short for Huajatollas Foods.
I continued southeast on Highway 69 and ran across this old building near Farisita. Not sure it was a church or a school. Could have been both. The windows certainly hint that it was an old church.
From Farisita the highway continued towards Walsenburg, but I chose to hop onto I-25 (The John F. Kennedy Memorial Freeway) and head south east towards Trinidad and Raton, New Mexico. After all of the nice weather, I hit the freeway and some typical afternoon desert showers.
On the approach to Trinidad, Colorado, the view of the buttes and the mesas was spectacular. The rain had left a bit of a haze in the sky and the air was still quite warm. As I drove through Trinidad, I saw things I would have liked to have stopped for. Unfortunately, I chose to zip through. I most certainly will plan a stop here if I am ever in the region again.
Continuing south took me over Raton Pass (7834 feet) which is on the Santa Fe Trail along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Raton Pass is a federally designated National Historic Landmark. Ratón is Spanish for “mouse.”
After entering New Mexico, the freeway snaked down from Raton Pass into the historic town of Raton. This area was along the Santa Fe Trail and eventually was a stop on the Santa Fe railroad, which was the catalyst to bringing this town into existence.
Many “Route 66” type of motel signs and neon can be found in Raton, though Raton was not on Route 66.
From Raton I headed east on US 64 towards Texas. This was a nice highway and it went past the Capulin National Monument (a large volcano).
I did not have time to stop at the Capulin Volcano National Monument, but I did get the nice shot above. If you look carefully you can see that there is a road that goes to the top…the road to the top of was first constructed in 1925 by Homer J. Farr. This volcano is one of many in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. The Raton-Clayton volcanic field is best known to historians as the site of some of the best preserved segments of the Santa Fe trail. Famous landmarks on the trail such as Round Mound, Wagon Mound, and Rabbit Ears Mountains are all volcanic centers.
Continuing east from Des Moines, NM towards Clayton the landscape turned into what I consider normal New Mexico landscape, flat with lots of tumbleweeds.
Upon entering Clayton, NM I was reminded of my visit to Salina, Colorado earlier in the day. I think I saw this dragon before….
Clayton, New Mexico is practically on the border of Texas near the panhandle. It is also just a few miles from the Oklahoma panhandle. It was really hot when I got here…but it was a dry heat (ha-ha). Clayton has long been a major stop on the trails of the west. Coronado passed through here on his way to Kansas. The Goodnight-Loving Trail with its large cattle drives, used Clayton for a stop over and resting place for the many herds of cattle driven over the famous trail. In the latter days of the Santa Fe Trail, freight lines from the railroads in Kansas passed through here. Soon after the railroad reached Santa Fe, another railroad came to Clayton. The arrival of the railroad in 1887, probably signaled the birth of Clayton.
Nearby is Clayton Lake which is also known for its “Dinosaur Trackway” – a number of fossilized dinosaur tracks. The town has some quirky dinosaur statues to celebrate this area.
Then there is another large metal sculpture, also probably from the same folks in Salida, CO
The horse above was apparently done by Albuquerque artist Bennie Duran who has a “Yard Art” shop called Desert Blooms.
From Clayton I continued east into Texas, first hitting the border town of Texline.
From Texline I continued into Dalhart, Texas.
From Dalhart I proceeded southeast on US 385 towards Channing, Texas and then would venture east on TX Hwy 354 towards Four Way, Texas.
Four Way, Texas, situated four miles north of Masterson, is named for its position on the spot where U.S. Highway 87 from Dumas to Masterson crosses the route from Channing to Lake Meredith and Stinnett. According to one history I found, “after natural gas was discovered in the vicinity in the late 1920s, a man named Anthony and his wife opened a grocery store, filling station, and dance hall. Music for this popular roadhouse was furnished during the 1930s by “Little Ham” Hamilton’s band from Amarillo. Later, after the highway was paved, a family named Atchison opened a store and cafe on the east side of the road. The dance hall expanded into a cafe and tourist court. By the early 1970s only one store and service station remained. The community was still listed in 1990.”
Heading south on US 87/287 thru Masterson I was soon getting close to Amarillo, Texas. I had not been in Amarillo since about 1968, when my family moved from Albuquerque to Dallas. We stayed overnight in Amarillo. My goal in Amarillo was to get to the famous “Cadillac Ranch” before dark and I was gonna do it!!
And I did make it!! The famous Cadillac Ranch – one of the most famous Offbeat Roadside attractions in the U.S.
What more can be said about Cadillac Ranch other than it is an icon in roadside quirkiness matching the twine balls, giant fish statues and Hell, Michigan as must see places. Indeed, while I was there I saw well over thirty people, all stopped on the I-40 side road and walking the walk, many to play the spray.
After the walk up the path to the 10 car set, I saw spray paint lids and cans strewn all over the field. The real focus now appears two fold – spray the cars and get a photo. I didn’t bring any spray paint (c’mon folks, I just drove nearly 12 hours from Eagle, Colorado!!).
So what is this place and why is it? According to Wikipedia, “Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation and sculpture created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm. It consists of what were (when originally installed during 1974) either older running used or junk Cadillacs, representing a number of evolutions of the car line (most notably the birth and death of the defining feature of mid twentieth century Cadillacs; the tailfins) from 1949 to 1963, half-buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.” Until 1997 it was located in a wheat field closer to Amarillo, but was moved to its current location in a pasture west of Amarillo. (Best to take I-40 exit 60 and then take the frontage road along the freeway heading east towards Amarillo. Cadillac Ranch will be on the right.
Cadillac Ranch is visible from the I-40, and though it is located on private land, visiting it is tacitly encouraged. In addition, writing graffiti on or otherwise spray-painting the vehicles is now encouraged, and the vehicles, which have long since lost their original colors, are wildly decorated. The cars are periodically repainted various colors. The cars were briefly “restored” to their original colors by the motel chain Hampton Inn in a public relations-sponsored series of Route 66 landmark restoration projects. The new paint jobs and even the plaque commemorating the project lasted less than 24 hours without fresh graffiti.
I had hoped to make it to a couple of other similar places nearby, including “Slug Bug Ranch” in Conway, Texas and “Combine City” in Canyon, Texas. But alas, no time on this trip. Check out the links above courtesy of Roadside America.
Now, if you recall that sign (above) near Raton advertising Free 72 Oz Steaks…. I deided to swing by this tourist attraction. Typically you don’t see advertisements like this hundreds of miles away, but there are a few including Wall Drug (South Dakota), Little America (Wyoming), Ruby Falls (Tennessee), The “Thing” (Arizona) and a number of caves around the country. So, I had to make a visit…to the Big Texan Steak Ranch.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch became one of those Route 66 icons back the 1960. At that time, R. J. “Bob” Lee opened The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo on Route 66, the “Mother Road”. Its distinctive architecture soon became recognized across the Mother Road as a good stopping place for great steaks grilled over an open flame. The towering neon sign of a long-legged cowboy that Bob erected next to the building became a major landmark on Route 66. From the beginning, the Big Texan welcomed weary travelers and migrating families whose roots spread all across America.
In the 1970s as freeways pushed Route 66 into the history annals, Lee bought land along the I-40 route and built a bigger and better Steak Ranch. He even moved the iconic sign from the old location by helicopter. Like any tourist attraction of this nature, there is glitz, whimsy and offbeat quirkiness.
Of course, the drawing card is the FREE 72 ounce steak dinner (and — in small print — “if eaten within an hour. Many have tried, many have failed”). I had no time to even think about it and the place was packed (it is open 24 hours and also serves breakfast), and, honestly, there is no way I could do that. Ultimately, you have to eat the following in an hour: Shrimp Cocktail, Baked Potato, Salad, with Roll, Butter, and of course the 72 oz. Steak. (see complete rules here). If you fail — you lose and must pay for the meal (not sure how much). They have a 38 page pdf file of their “Hall of Fame” including names from 1965. Apparently over 48,000 have tried and only 8000 have succeeded. The Man vs. Food series actually filmed its first episode here and Adam Richman, the host, finished off the meal in less than an hour. (See the video here)
Oh well, I still had to move on. By this time I realized I wouldn’t make it to the Dallas area, so I set my sights on making it to Wichita Falls, Texas for the night…another three hour drive from Amarillo.
I went southeast on US 287 towards Childress and through other small towns like Quanah and Vernon before making it to Wichita Falls.
After a nice (but short) night’s stay in Wichita Falls, it was back on the road. I had to make my first stop along the way in the small town of Jolly…needed to be Jolly first thing!! A post office began operations there in 1891 and was named for William H. Jolly, an area rancher and farmer. In 1895 Jolly had seventy-five residents, six businesses, two churches, and a school. From the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s it reported a population of sixty-three. Its post office ceased operations sometime after 1930. There are about 200 residents now.
The drive into Dallas from Wichita Falls was quite nice most of the way as I stayed on US 287/81 all the way to Decatur. The roadsides were carpeted in wildflowers of purple, red and yellow.
I soon approached the wonderful traffic congested, always under construction Dallas freeways…and this ends this long trip
And THIS is why I prefer the open roads along the Less Beaten Paths of America….