Monday, May 23, 2011

Don't Forget Winona

If you're as old as I am - which is to say not at all - you probably remember the Nat King Cole song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66". If you're a bit younger, maybe you are more familiar with the Rolling Stone's 1964 version, Manhattan Transfer's in 1975, or Depeche Mode's rework in 1987. Seems not a decade passes without some popular group having a hit with this 1946 Bobby Troup tune. Troup wrote the song to celebrate the fabled route from Chicago to Los Angeles, known by various names including "The Mother Road" (via Steinbeck), "Main Street of America", and even the "Will Rogers Highway". Whatever you call it, Route 66 had a major impact on the growth of the western part of the country, and this tune left an indelible mark on the popular culture. The line that always jumps out at me is the one that says "Flagstaff, Arizona; Don't forget Winona". The song is basically a chronological list of the towns and cities one would encounter along the way, with the exception of Winona, which actually resides east of Flagstaff, and therefore prior to it on a journey west. Seems Troup wanted very much to include Flagstaff in his ditty, but ran into trouble finding a rhyme that worked. So he opted for Arizona and, lo and behold, there was Winona. Hey, see what I just did there?

So that's how I find myself in beautiful Flagstaff, AZ, writing to you today. Good thing I didn't have "Folsom Prison Blues" on my mind instead. Of course, Route 66 was officially decommissioned with the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and even Winona folded as an independent community and was made part of greater Flagstaff. But the lure of the wide-open west can still be felt here and, as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is a vibrant tourist destination.

Hey did you know that the planet Pluto was discovered from an observatory right here in Flagstaff? Yep, in 1930 an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory confirmed the existence of what had previously been dubbed Planet X by the namesake of the observatory, Percival Lowell. In fact, the name Pluto was chosen in part as a nod to Lowell's initials. Lowell was a businessman, author, mathematician, and astronomer who had the novel idea of placing an observatory in a remote, high-altitude, and largely cloudless area. In other words, Flagstaff. Now this would seem obvious today, but in Lowell's time, observatories were always in or near cities and universities, and rarely provided the vantage point required for studying the solar system. The rest of Lowell's body of work is... let's just say, not so hot.

For example, he became convinced that there was an intricate canal system visible on Mars, and therefore concluded that there must have been intelligent life on the now-barren planet. In fact, he wrote not one, but two books on the subject. While popular with the public, other astronomers couldn't independently locate the canal systems, and they were ultimately (and mercifully) determined to be "optical illusions". Similarly, the "spoke-like features and a central dark spot" he observed on Venus was determined to be the blood vessels in his own eye reflecting back at him. And in what can only be classified as "kicking a guy when he's down", the planet named for him was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. But the observatory he built has been the source of numerous discoveries of our solar system, including mapping out a landing area for the first Apollo mission. It accepts visitors daily, and you should really have a look.

Flagstaff is also home to the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world, first-class nordic and alpine skiing, fascinating frontier culture museums, a giant volcanic crater with a petrified lava flow, and the University of Northern Arizona. Within easy driving distance you will find Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a meteor crater over 550 feet deep, one of the best Native American cliff-dwelling sites in the country, and a little place known as the Grand Canyon. It's a wonder that the song Route 66 didn't just stop here, rather than continue on to Los Angeles.

Fortunately, timeshare rentals are available by the week, and you will need at least one to do this area justice. I am staying at the Wyndham Flagstaff, featuring indoor and outdoor pools, eight tennis courts, and 18-hole golf, all onsite. Nearby Sedona offers numerous timeshare options as well, and should be part of any visit to the area.

Well, I am off Slide Rock State Park to take in a slippery and chilly local experience. Part of Oak Creek Canyon, and managed by the U.S. Forestry Service, the park has been used as the backdrop to numerous Hollywood westerns, including "Broken Arrow" with Jimmy Stewart, and is home to an interpretive homestead. But its most famous feature is the slick natural water chute that runs adjacent to the homestead. Years of snow melt runoff has carved into the rocks a series of chutes that are as smooth as glass. Visitors are welcome to don their swimsuits and take their chances negotiating the slick and chilly course. Now I am thinking the likelihood of me busting my tailbone or cracking my melon on the rocks is fairly high. So if you don't hear from me for a while, "won't you get hip to this timely tip: get your kicks on route sixty-six".

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