Holbrook, Arizona is a very special place for me as it is for other Route 66 travelers. This small Arizona town is the home of the world famous Wigwam Motel, The Rainbow Rock Shop, Joe & Aggie’s Cafe, Juliens Road Runner and a bevy of other roadside attractions. It also the gateway to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park, which was our afternoon destination.
My first visit to Holbrook was back in 2000 when I was living in North Andover, Massachusetts and I was on my first Route 66 excursion. After I moved to Phoenix, AZ, Holbrook became one of my favourite weekend getaways. Since moving back to Canada in 2003, I find myself here for a third time. It was Elaine’s first visit to Holbrook and she also fell in love with this unique and quirky town.
Whenever I overnight in Holbrook, I make sure to eat breakfast at Joe & Aggie’s Cafe which serves authentic and tasty Mexican or American food. Three generations of the Gallegos family has owned this restaurant. They are famous for their red and green chili recipes and if you ever find yourself in Holbrook, make sure the visit them and order anything from the menu that features their signature chili.
During my first Route 66 drive, back in 2000, I met Tom Julien, the owner of Julien’s Roadrunner “Gallery of Signs and Route 66 Stuff” store. I remember chatting with him, learning a bit about his life story, his service to America in WWII and of course, his cats. Tom is wonderful human being with a great sense of humor, warmth and passion for the Mother Road. His store features a remarkable collection of stamped metal signs featuring reproductions of old ads and funny slogans and more. If we had more space left on the Harley, I would have bought several as souvenirs. As such, Elaine purchased a few smaller items, such as hat pins and fridge magnets.
Before entering the store, I told Elaine a bit about Tom Julien and wondered if he was still the proprietor or had retired and sold the business. As we set foot inside, Tom emerged from the back room along with one of his beloved cats. I mentioned that I was glad to see he was still there running his store, he said, “Actually, I’m glad to see I’m still here! I’m 86 years old!”
We chatted for a while with Tom, spoke of our trip and my fondness for Holbrook as well as his store. Elaine paid for her merchandise and I told Tom I will always visit his place when travelling Route 66 and we will see him again. He said, “Well hurry up then! I don’t know how much time I have left here!” A bittersweet ending after visiting this great store and a wonderful old man.
Holbrook is famous for its dinosaurs, well at least those of the giant, cheesy and cartoonish variety. Just around the corner from Julien’s Roadrunner is the Rainbow Rock Shop which has built some incredible dinosaur statues to attract visitors. The gimmick works every time and unless one is blind or has no sense of fun, you cannot help but to go inside the store. The store sells petrified wood by the pound as well as a vast collection of other rocks, minerals, geodes and fossils. Quite a remarkable place indeed.
“Have you slept in a Wigwan lately?” So says the slogan to the iconic and world famous Wigwam Motel. I cannot think of any other motel that is more famous along Route 66. Open up any book on Route 66 and it’s there. Visit any Route 66 themed website and it’s there. Watch the Disney move “Cars” and it’s there as the “Cozy Cone Motel”.
Arizona motel owner Chester E. Lewis built this Wigwam Village in 1950. Lewis operated the motel successfully until closing it in 1974 when Interstate 40 bypassed downtown Holbrook. Two years after his death in 1986, sons Clifton and Paul Lewis and daughter Elinor renovated the motel and reopened it in 1988. It is listed on National Register of Historic Places. It remains popular to this day and one often sees the “No Vacancy” sign lit up.
I have slept in these Wigwams when I lived in Arizona. The rooms are comfortable, clean and the interior design is clever. Unfortunately, on this trip we had to seek Holbrook accommodations elsewhere. Whether you are a guest at the motel or not, the Lewis family welcomes anyone to explore the property, take photos and they will be happy to let you inspect a room and tell you about the Wigwam Motel’s history.
Parked outside each wigwam, there are classic American cars from rust buckets to those still running. These cars run the gamut from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s. This a clever touch to classic slice of Americana and further entrenches the Wigwam Motel into Route 66 legend. The next time we visit Holbrook, we will sleep in a Wigwam and I plan to get some great sunset photos of the property. Alas, all my photos were taken in mid-day sun which is the least dramatic light for photographers.
Our next destination was the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park. As its namesake suggests, the park is peppered with petrified wood and some fossil. The Painted Desert derives its name from the stratified colors of the landscape which look like they were painted onto hills, buttes and cliffs. There is no denying the natural beauty of this park and it makes for a great drive. The petrified wood is fascinating enough, however, I find it matters little when travelling through the painted desert since the scenery takes your breath away.
Late August is the monsoon season in Arizona and the sky took on a truly dramatic tone over the painted desert. These opaque and dark gray clouds in the distance meant heavy rains were falling and the weather would soon change from punishing heat to a deluge and moderate temperatures.
After driving through the Painted Desert, it was back on the interstate heading west to Williams, AZ . The plan was to unload the bike at our motel and then take a ride out to Seligman before the sunset and eat dinner at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. Since our travel time would be just over two hours, I figured we had time for a stop or two before checking into Williams. I took Elaine to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, which is just west of Joseph City. The facility and its sign are historical icons and fixtures on Route 66. Not surprisingly, it too found its way into the movie “Cars” as the “Here it Is” sign on main street in Radiator Springs.
After the obligatory visit to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, it was back on I-40 and we rode past Twin Arrows, Winona and Flagstaff. We arrived in Willaims just after 6 PM, checked into the Rodeway Inn Motel and unloaded the bike. There was still time to ride out to Seligman and I suggested that we leave our helmets in the room and enjoy riding with the wind in our hair. This was a foolish move, shortly after we made it out of town, a monsoon of biblical proportions starting spewing rain and we were soaked to the bone in less than a minute. Moreover, the temperature plunged at least 20 degrees and turned back to seek shelter and dry off. It would have been idiotic and pointless to do otherwise.
About 20 minutes after returning to Williams, the rain mellowed out to a light shower. We walked around the streets, took some photos, visited some shops and decided where to eat dinner. I suggested Rod’s Steak House, since I really dig their cool neon sign and desperately wanted to enjoy an excellent steak. It was the right choice indeed! I savored a New York Sirloin cooked to perfection along with a glass of fine Spanish Rioja.
If an excellent meal along with great service inside a famous Route 66 restaurant was not enough, there was a surprise on the way out. As we were leaving, I overhead two groups of people speaking French, so I stopped and listened to determine if they were from France or Quebec. This matter was not quickly resolved as I heard both accents. So, I said to them in French, “I am confused and I am trying to figure out if you are from France or Quebec” The two men at the first table said they were from Granby, Quebec. The second table, a family with teenage children, said they hailed from Normandie, France. I told the first table I grew up in Montreal and I mentioned to the second table that we visited Normandie almost a year ago to the day. I also expressed my fondness for their country, the culture, the people and a desire to return to France.
We all exchanged pleasantries, spoke of ourselves, our travels and so on. New friends were made that night. The family from Normandie gave me their phone number and offered to take us on a tour next time we visit France. The two men from Granby presented me with their business cards and suggested we have a few beers next time I am in Montreal. Clearly, the visit to Seligman was not meant to be and fate had something much better in store for us.
After dinner, I checked the weather forecast and it predicted the rain and cooler temperatures were going to remain for a few days. This posed a problem for the next day. I agonized whether to take a chance and ride to the Grand Canyon and on to Bryce Canyon, Utah or take the train to the Grand Canyon and forget about Utah. The sensible part of me said to take the train, since the monsoon weather would not only delay our arrival to Utah, it would just plain suck riding there. I cancelled our motel reservation in Bryce Canyon and decided that taking the train to the Grand Canyon would make the day far more enjoyable and safer.
August 22, 2013, was a full day indeed. Although we did not travel hundreds of miles, we got to see some incredible sights and meet some great people.