Tag Archives: Arizona

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Alien forest

I visited Saguaro National Park for the first time last year, and between being a veteran national parks tourist and seeing a zillion photos of the place over the years, I thought I knew what to expect. Aaaand of course, I was way wrong. (No surprise there.)

For one thing, Mary-Alice and I arrived in the middle of a storm. No stereotypical desert scenes for me that day; instead, I got to add something far more dramatic to the ol’ sketchbook.

For another, I knew the park was quite close to the city of Tucson, but I didn’t know it was comprised of two distinct districts (Rincon Mountain and Tucson Mountain), each flanking the city from opposite sides. There wasn’t enough time to do both units in one afternoon, so we rearranged our schedule for the next day in order to fit in a tour of the western district.

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Finally, I was shocked to discover that the place reminded me strongly of my home turf of the Pacific Northwest—at least, a bizarre, parallel-universe version thereof. It wasn’t just that the saguaros are incredibly tall. It was that there were so many of them, thick on the ground like the familiar conifer forests of Washington. Add to that the indigo hillsides I’d seen the night before, and the nebulous mists of that morning, and it was like standing in a dream-land version of home.

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Harvey House map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Harvey hospitality

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

If you travel Route 66, you’re sure to come across the name of Fred Harvey. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re far from alone. Yet Harvey and his commercial empire had a lot to do with creating, collecting and curating that slice of Americana we call the Southwest.

If I were throw another name at you, though, I bet you’d be able to place it: Howard Johnson. That’s right, the hospitality magnate who, in the 1960s and 70s, controlled the largest restaurant chain in the United States. Well, I’m not knocking Johnson (or all that fabulous midcentury decor), but Harvey did it first, and best.

Harvey got his start in the late 1870s, when the West was still very much a wild place, and the railroads were busy cutting new paths over the old overland trade routes. Harvey was revolted by the food the railroad companies offered their passengers—he figured if eastern travelers could access the same quality of cuisine they’d find in a New York City restaurant, they’d get over their fear of “roughing it” and head West in style. His employer, the Burlington Railroad, turned him down, but the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway saw merit in the idea. Harvey signed a contract with AT&SF, and the first American restaurant chain was born.

Grand Canyon sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring El Tovar Hotel, a former Harvey House

Before long, Harvey had added hotels and tour services to his repertoire, and by the early twentieth century there were “Harvey Houses” scattered all over the Southwest. Some of his best-known properties still stand—including nearly all of the historic buildings that comprise the South Rim complex at the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring Hopi House, a former Harvey House

Early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt were horrified by the prospect of commercializing the Grand Canyon, yet one could easily argue that if Fred Harvey hadn’t done it, someone else most assuredly would have (and they did! Google the mayhem that is Ralph Henry Cameron sometime, if you’re curious).

Grand Canyon sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring Bright Angel Lodge, a former Harvey House

One vote in favor of Harvey was that each of his establishments was thoughtfully designed to be at once beautiful, well-made, reflective of its natural surroundings and sensitive to its area’s cultural heritage. (I’m sure that last box wasn’t checked as well as it might have been, but considering the era in which these places were designed, the fact that any cultural sensitivity came about at all is nothing short of astonishing.)

And we have one person to thank for much of that:

Harvey House and Mary Colter sketch by Chandler O'Leary

That’s right: Fred Harvey’s right-hand man was a woman. And it’s Mary Jane Colter’s style and sensibility that come through in the most memorable Harvey Houses. She is the one who created much of that unified “look” that we associate with the American Southwest. And that’s because she did her research—she looked at all the different regional architectural styles of the various Native cultures of the region, and blended them with the popular architectural styles of the day: Arts & Crafts, Mission, and various revivals of European and even North African traditions.

Colter went one step further, and did something that was way ahead of her time: she actually hired Native artists and craftspeople to complete many of the details on and in her buildings. She worked most often with Hopi painter Fred Kabotie, who contributed elements like the murals at the Painted Desert Inn and various interior details at Hopi House. In working with artists like Kabotie, Colter’s buildings have an authenticity to them that, along with their craftsmanship, elevates them way above your average tourist trap.

La Posada Harvey House sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I didn’t know any of this before my trip, nor had I ever heard of Fred Harvey before. Luckily for me, many of the surviving Harvey Houses are located along Route 66, so I had ample opportunity to find out—

Barstow Harvey House sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—and to gaze in wonder at so many architectural treasures still standing along the Mother Road.

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary, featuring Hotel La Fonda, a former Harvey House

Most serendipitous for my Harvey education was our decision to drive the original (and less-traveled) pre-1937 alignment of Route 66, which took us to Santa Fe. For one thing, Santa Fe is home to the most magnificent example of extant Harvey Houses: Hotel La Fonda.

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary, featuring Hotel La Fonda, a former Harvey House

The place is often nicknamed “the oldest hotel in the United States,” but that’s not exactly true. What is true is that an inn or fonda has stood continuously upon this location for over four hundred years. Harvey must have known that particular historical tidbit, because La Fonda doesn’t mess around. Every inch of the place is jam-packed with Harvey’s version of Southwest Americana.

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary, featuring Hotel La Fonda, a former Harvey House

The hotel has been remade and renovated seemingly endlessly over the years, but you can still find traces of its history (and Mary Colter’s interior touches) everywhere.

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary, featuring Hotel La Fonda, a former Harvey House

La Fonda is the place where you learn to recognize the Harvey style—where even if you don’t know the history behind any of it, you’ll still know it when you see it.

Harvey House artifacts sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other thing Santa Fe gave me was a glimpse of Harvey’s empire on a micro scale, thanks to the New Mexico History Museum at the Palace of the Governors. Far beyond capitalizing on the idea of a hospitality chain, what Fred Harvey really understood was branding. And branding really isn’t even the right word here: while other hotels might have an “identity,” Harvey went way beyond that. For his employees, he created a culture. For his customers, he created something more akin to mythology.

For an amateur graphic design historian like me, I felt like I’d struck gold at the Palace of the Governors. Their Harvey House exhibit displayed the length, breadth and depth of Harvey branding—beyond any logo, their aesthetic covered everything from letterhead to jewelry to employee pamphlets. Harvey’s penchant for hiring professional artists paid off on every front: every last detail was carefully considered, equally beautiful, and a stand-alone work of art.

Harvey House artifacts sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And that brings me to the most famous and curious piece of Harvey branding: the Harvey Girl.* A living, breathing icon, the Harvey Girl became the very embodiment of the taming of the West.

Fred Harvey felt that while the romantic idea of the Wild West might be a draw to tourists, its rough-and-tumble connotations would be more of a hinderance than anything else, as wealthy customers viewed western travel as dangerous and uncomfortable. To counteract this notion, Harvey committed to hiring only educated young women from the East and Midwest to wait upon, entertain and guide his guests. The Harvey Girls had to adhere to strict codes of dress, conduct and morality; live in single-sex barracks run by middle-aged den mothers; and sign year-long contracts which forbade them to marry while employed by the Harvey Company. The idea of “civilizing” the West, one genteel lady at a time, was a smash hit, and the Harvey Girl became so iconic that Judy Garland even played one on the silver screen.

What really interests me, however, is that the Harvey Girls—and there were 100,000 of them in all—were the first female workforce in America. The guests may have seen them as mere waitresses, but in reality these were educated women who were responsible for far more than carrying trays or taking orders. Later, as automobiles became popular and Harvey started his Indian Detours auto tour service, Harvey Girls—renamed “Couriers” or even, ugh, Indian Maids—comprised the entire staff of tour guides. Most had college degrees, and each Courier was required to have a working knowledge of local history, botany, geology, archaeology, anthropology, geography, or any other subject the tourists might inquire about.

* Note: Much of my Harvey Girl information comes from Katrina Parks’s wonderful documentary, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound. Excerpts from the documentary are included in the Harvey exhibit at the Palace of the Governors, and it is these that introduced me to Ms. Parks’s work. She is currently working on a new project called The Women on the Mother Road—her website features some of my Route 66 sketches, and I’m excited and honored to be included!

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring Painted Desert Inn, a former Harvey House

I tell you all of this to illustrate just how far-reaching Fred Harvey’s empire was, how much of modern American history was touched by his ideas. The Harvey Houses weren’t just another hotel chain—they were an astonishing and vast collective work of art. And they were an incredible economic engine that provided work to thousands of people—many of them highly skilled artists, designers, craftspeople, historians, scientists and anthropologists.

chandler_oleary_route66_az_harveyhouse_painteddesertinn_ceiling

The Harvey Company also employed many unskilled laborers, like the Civilian Conservation Corps (one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Soup” agencies founded during the Great Depression), who built and then painted this glass skylight at the Painted Desert Inn.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring Painted Desert Inn, a former Harvey House

More than anything, I think it’s this constant mixing of things that marks Harvey’s legacy: east and west, Native and Anglo, public and private. (For instance, the hotels and restaurants themselves were funded by the private railroad company, but many of them were located on or near public lands, and many used government-funded labor to build them.) I don’t think Harvey gets much of the credit for it, but the WPA (Works Progress Administration, another Alphabet Soup agency) borrowed heavily from Harvey House ideas and aesthetics when they built the national park lodges in the 1920s and 30s.

And sadly, it’s no wonder: while the national park lodges still stand, protected on public land, very few Harvey Houses survive today, and even fewer are still hotels or restaurants. Many of them were demolished in the 1970s and 80s—an awful time to be an historic building—and still others hold on as empty shells, stripped of all their glory and slowly decaying.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary featuring Painted Desert Inn, a former Harvey House

Still, Route 66 is the best path to take to discover what’s left of Fred Harvey’s world. As you drive the Mother Road along the old Santa Fe railway, remember that somebody came before you—leaving the lights on and turning back the covers, all in hopes of making the West feel more welcoming.

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Sunset Crater National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Sister sites

On our way up to the Grand Canyon for our second day at the park, the Tailor and I decided to swing through a trio of national monuments located a short detour away, just outside of Flagstaff, AZ. Since what is arguably the most famous national park lies just down the road, these sites tend to get overshadowed a bit. Yet all are worth a stop, and all are closely linked to one another.

First up is Sunset Crater National Monument, a volcanic cinder cone and a landscape painter’s dream. The name, coined by John Wesley Powell, comes from the subtle gradation of reds and purples within the volcanic rock. Combined with the surrounding meadows that bloomed with wildflowers while we were there, the effect was stunning.

Walnut Canyon National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

On the other side of Flagstaff lies Walnut Canyon National Monument. At first glance, this place appears to have little in common with Sunset Crater, but in fact the two are intrinsically connected. The people of the Sinagua culture had been living above the canyon rim since about the year 600, but after Sunset Crater erupted in about the year 1100, the population near the canyon grew rapidly as people fled the volcano. After that, the Sinagua began to settle inside the canyon itself, constructing cleverly-hidden cliff dwellings up and down the canyon’s walls (there are three sketched out in the drawing above—can you spot them?).

Wupatki National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’ve saved the best for last: Wupatki National Monument. This site is located just a few miles north of Sunset Crater, and preserves entire pueblos built by the Sinagua. This sandstone city was built following the eruption of the cinder cone, after the deposit of volcanic ash made the area’s soil much more fertile. The Wupatki pueblo, pictured here, is the largest settlement within the national monument—this one apartment-building-like structure had 100 rooms and housed up to a hundred people (the entire settled region had several thousand Sinagua inhabitants).

Wupatki National Monument sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’ve visited a lot of the ancient pueblo ruins of the Southwest, and I’m always drawn to the sophisticated architecture of each one. But so far I haven’t seen anything that provides as clear a picture of what life must have been like then as this place does. Walking through Wupatki really feels like one is trespassing through someone’s house—someone who might just return at any moment.

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Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Painted desert

Of course, with all this talk of national parks, leaving out the crown jewel of the Park Service would be downright criminal. But until last summer, I’d never been to the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When I finally go there, I did my best to remedy the heck out of the situation. And the weather did its best to oblige me—in just two short days I feel like I got to see the Canyon in an incredibly broad variety of moods and colors.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Actually, sketching there sort of broke my brain. Not only is it easy to fall into the trap of trying to document every minute detail, but the light also seems to change every few seconds. I’d look for a bit, mix up some paint, and then look again to find the colors and shadows completely different than just a moment ago.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So whenever the grandeur threatened to overwhelm me, I shifted my focus to my fellow tourists (including the four-legged ones).

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

To tell the truth, I found the tourist trade every bit as fascinating as the canyon itself—especially since it goes back a long, long way. The Grand Canyon might be the most well-known national park, but it was far from the first. And that’s because well over a century ago, commercial interests fought long and hard to keep the canyon private to maximize profits—hard to imagine, considering the number of tourists who flock there today. But those early tourist traps are now preserved right alongside the rocks themselves—and I was just as eager to sketch them as the vistas.

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, nothing beats nature for a spectacle. I was one of hundreds lined up on the cliff’s edge this night, but as soon as the sky turned pink I forgot all about my fellow tourists. Seeing something that vast, paradoxically, has a way of shrinking the whole world into a pinpoint of a moment—one that’s every bit as personal as it is universal.

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Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Park rangers of the Mother Road

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

The last post was a big fat tribute to the National Park Service, which celebrated its centennial yesterday. So it’s only fitting to spend today telling you about Petrified Forest National Park, which is the exact center of the Venn Diagram between the national parks and Route 66. In fact, it’s the only national park to contain a section of the original Mother Road.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Of course, even if you didn’t know anything about Route 66, Petrified Forest is still infinitely worth visiting. There is the namesake petrified wood, of course, but it’s the landscapes that touched this artist’s soul.

Petrified Forest National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Around every bend in the road was some new desert vista, each one vastly different than the one before. And with every passing cloud the light changed, essentially remaking the land in a totally new image, all within minutes.

Petrified Forest National Park and Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And just when you’ve all but forgotten what brought you here, you crest a hill and see a telltale line of telephone poles, still marching westward to the horizon.

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Mt. Rainier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Our best idea

Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. All of America seems to be celebrating right now, and rightly so. In my opinion, our wildest pockets are our true national treasures, and our national parks, as Wallace Stegner said, our best idea.

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

So since I’ve spent a good chunk of my sketching life in national parks both close to home…

Arches National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Arches National Park, UT

…and far afield…

Crater Lake National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Crater Lake National Park, OR

I figured I’d add my voice to the celebratory din, in the form of a little sketchbook retrospective.

Badlands National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Badlands National Park, SD

Beyond the centennial itself, I’m always up for toasting the parks. Not only do I think park rangers are the best people on earth,

Redwood National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Redwood National Park, CA

but I also sometimes think they’re the only thing standing between wildness and destruction.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

And anyway, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a total park nut myself. It’s my goal to visit every NPS property before I die, including national parks, historic sites, national monuments, everything. (Actually, I’ve crossed a goodly chunk of them off the list already—

Guadalupe Mountains National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

—and I even have the stamps to prove it.)

Olympic National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Olympic National Park, WA

I know I have a long path ahead of me before I reach that goal,

Grand Canyon National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

and getting there won’t be easy.

Big Bend National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Big Bend National Park, TX

Yet I can’t tell you how grateful I am that the opportunity exists in the first place—

Rocky Mountain National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

that so many people have fought to preserve these wild places, and won.

Saguaro National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Saguaro National Park, AZ

Best of all is the feeling that no matter how long it might take me to get to each park with my sketchbook,

Glacier National Park sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Glacier National Park, MT

I know it’ll be there waiting for me, as close to unchanged as humanly possible. Thanks to the National Park Service, the window of opportunity remains open.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Fill ‘er up

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Polly want a pit stop?

If you’re going to take a road trip, at some point you’re going to need to refuel. And nobody knows how to fill your tank like the folks on Route 66. Of course, since the route crosses a big swath of American oil country, you’ll know that the milk of the Mother Road is petroleum.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

The thing is, though, the designers and architects and advertisers and engineers responsible for putting gas stations all along the route got into the spirit of 66 in their own unique ways. Forget what you know about ugly garages lining Interstate exits—many of Route 66’s filling stations are downright works of art.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

And many of them look absolutely nothing like gas stations.

Interestingly, the Mother Road was built at a time when more and more Americans owned automobiles—all over the country there was an increasingly large demand for petrol. Filling stations moved into town centers and residential neighborhoods, and some oil companies wanted their fuel stops to blend in with the neighborhood architecture.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since American architecture is highly regional in nature, many of these “camoflaged” filling stations took on the look of their local culture—Spanish-Mission-style canopies in California, limestone façades in the Ozarks, clapboard farmhouse lookalikes in the Plains, etc. And then, of course, architectural tastes changed over the years, so you’ll find examples from the Victorian era to midcentury pop-Googie, and everything in between. (Not to mention the tradition of kitschy filling stations shaped like random objects or weird ho-made roadside giants.) Finally, each oil company wanted to attract customers away from the others, so they relied on creating distinctive architectural styles as a form of branding. The result is a veritable encyclopedia of diverse and spectacular specimens—and Route 66 might just have the best collection of all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Albuquerque, New Mexico

After a few hundred miles, we started getting really good at spotting the buildings that used to be filling stations (this is an obvious one, but many had been deeply camoflaged, or totally remade in some other image, or else fallen into ruin). And we also developed a knack for pegging which style belonged to which company (above is a classic 1930s Texaco design).

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Then again, sometimes a building would throw us completely—the sealed-up garage bays hint at the Blue Dome’s history, but if I didn’t know better, I would have guessed this was once a Greek Orthodox church or something.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Spencer, Missouri

The filling stations of Route 66 also serve as markers of time’s passage, and the rise and fall of communities along the way. This one is all that remains of a ghost town in Missouri that fell into disuse when the highway changed its route. (I’m not talking about the advent of the Interstate, either, although that’s a common story—this place lost its prime spot decades before that, when the 66 alignment was simply moved to a spot further south.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ranco Cucamonga, California

While many petroleum relics have faded into oblivion, others are being brought back, at least in some form or other. Above is one of the oldest specimens we found (it actually predates the birth of Route 66 by nearly a decade). While part of the structure has been torn down, at least the main part of the station is getting a lovely facelift.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Needles, California

It’s not just the oldest samples being preserved, either. This guy is only a little over fifty years old, but it, too, has been returned to its former glory.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Normal, Illinois

For many old stations, however, the opposite is true. Countless specimens either sit empty, their original purpose unknown to the average passerby—or else they get cannibalized and transformed into some other creature, usually without any fanfare.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hydro, Oklahoma

These stories of disrepair and restoration interest me greatly, of course, but what really gets me is the story of each place: the whys and wherefores of each station, and the tastes and quirks of the people who either built or ran them.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cool Springs, Arizona

After all, Route 66 crosses through some seriously unpopulated territory. Many of these old filling stations were the only game in town—or in the most remote corners, something closer to the last chance for salvation.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Commerce, Oklahoma

While others, meanwhile, live on in notoriety, attracting tourists to the spots where blood was shed or infamous characters once stood.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Odell, Illinois

Still, most tell the story of perfectly ordinary people running perfectly ordinary businesses along one of the backbones of American travel and commerce. They might be extraordinary today, but usually that’s boils down to having somehow lasted long enough to stand out amongst more modern surroundings.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Shamrock, Texas

I’m glad, at least, that I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed these things—that there is an army of conservators and historians and artists and boosters out there, preserving as many of these old filling stations as possible, and documenting the ones that can’t be saved.

I know that these days, oil companies have fallen out of public favor (heaven knows I have my own beef with the oil industry)—regardless of their nostalgia, these places are also reminders of American excess and the damaging effects of fossil fuels. Yet however we may be careening toward Peak Oil, these relics still have a place on the Mother Road—the path that might just traverse this country’s Peak History.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Extinct but very much alive

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Unlike the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon Coast, the section of Route 66 that crosses eastern Arizona is actually a place known to contain real, no-kidding dinosaur fossils. (And unique ones, to boot: there’s a large concentration of Triassic-era early dinosaur species here.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Unsurprisingly, the Mother Road in that part of the state is positively crowded with roadside attractions that fill the dinosaur niche—most of them centered around the town of Holbrook. No matter what kind of concrete dinosaur you’re into, Holbrook has something for everyone. The prehistoric portrayals range from cartoony…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to surprisingly realistic…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to absurd…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…to downright hilarous.

Amazingingly (and unlike many Route 66 landmarks), every dino-themed attraction here is still in business, still trapping tourists. May they live long and prosper—while they keep drawing crowds, I’ll keep drawing pictures.

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Route 66 Burma Shave sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Roadside rhymes

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Some years back I lamented missing the era of the Burma Shave ad, but on Route 66, I finally got my chance to see what it must have been like. These signs are replicas rather than originals, and some of them are more than a little ho-made

Route 66 Burma Shave sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…but it doesn’t matter. The effect, I imagine, is the same. Like the Meramec Caverns signs, the Burma Shave ads permeated American road trip culture from the mid-1920s through the mid-60s, providing lots of inexpensive exposure for the company and roadside fun for travelers as they “sang along” with the five- or six-sign rhyming slogans. Even the Tailor and I found ourselves reciting the limerick-like slogans aloud as we drove by.

Route 66 Burma Shave sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It just seems fitting that we’d find the quintessential billboards on the quintessential road trip. If you’re going to have any Burma Shave remnants out there along the roadside, they just belong on the Mother Road.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cutting-edge comfort

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

In its heyday, Route 66 was a symbol of American prosperity, modernity, technology and personal freedom—not just because of the rise of the middle class in that era, but also thanks to all the new technologies that allowed more and more people to live in relative comfort. In the post-war 1920s people started buying big-ticket items on credit; after World War II, good jobs were abundant and people had even more disposable income. In both eras, many families owned their own automobiles for the first time: suddenly people had both the means and the tools to take vacations in far-off places, and Route 66 showed them the way.

And the Mother Road was lined from toe to tip with modern notions and attractions. Neon tubes, a recent invention, lined every urban commercial strip along the way. Budget-minded travelers could stay in newfangled motor hotels, and even park their cars in garages attached to their rooms. But perhaps the most important invention, the key to the Mother Road’s success, was the advent of air conditioning.

Like most vacationers do today, Route 66 road trippers tended to take their vacations in the summer. And 66 cuts its path through a part of the country with some seriously warm climates. August in the Ozarks is hot and sticky, but summer in the Sun Belt can be downright dangerous. Air conditioning became widely available in the late 1920s, just as the first alignments of 66 were being laid out. The technology wasn’t just convenient for hotels or restaurants looking for a perk to advertise; it was downright revolutionary, in that it allowed the entire American Southwest to be opened up for large-scale development.

Of course, the Southwest is littered with examples of the downsides of said development, but now that I’ve traveled Route 66 at the very zenith of a scorcher of a summer, the logic of advertising “air cooled” rooms is plain as day. I can now attest to the gratitude one feels when stepping into an icy-cool room after a day spent in 115-degree heat. And neon signs like this one, advertising such a technological miracle, shimmer like desert mirages promising an oasis just ahead.