Route 66 #1

Route 66 #1
Route 66 Museum

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Howard Johnsons Route 66 Connections

I’ve more or less been catching rumblings about Howard Johnsons restaurants for the past week, but it wasn’t until this weekend I finally had a chance to sit down and read what's been going on. As it turns out Howard Johnsons after all these years are down to one final restaurant in Lake George, NY. Although the motel chain has survived thanks to a buyout by Wyndham Hotels in 2006, the restaurants that were formerly part of the Howard Johnson experience weren’t as lucky and have eked out their survival although unsuccessfully ever since.

In many ways Howard Johnson’s was a mid-20th century equivalent to what Harvey Houses where in the late-19th to the early mid-20th centuries. Essentially a chain of restaurants and hotels aimed at serving travelers. Although one could partake in either a stay or a dining experience, many road weary travelers often chose to do both grabbing dinner and/or breakfast along with a stay. Of course Howard Johnson’s wasn’t the only chain doing this at the time, Best Western, Holiday Inn and even Route 66’s own Whiting Brothers offered such full services to travelers, nor was this anything new since cabin court hotels offered such services as far back as the 20’s. What really separated Howard Johnsons from the crowd though was that it was considered the gold standard for eating and lodging by the 1960’s and 70’s. The bright orange roofs of the motel/restaurant combo was a market branding ploy that hit home with families as meaning a quality place to stay and eat, and escape the ever more prevalent fast food establishments getting a foothold on the nation.

For many, Howard Johnson’s has been is often viewed as an East Coast franchise, but they did have a myriad of establishments across country including a number of them on Route 66, averaging at least one per state (minus Kansas) along the route. Many of them like the Flagstaff Route 66 location are still in business but now under different names, for instance this Flagstaff location is called the Crown Railroad Cafe, and is a family favorite of ours. Of course it’s good to know some of these restaurants are still around and in business, but the sad part is that the association with their heritage, orange roofs and all, is long gone and that the Howard Johnson brand name is no longer associated with family dining along the road.

The big question is what is the future of the last remaining Howard Johnson’s in Lake George, NY and with it the Howard Johnson’s name associated with restaurant hospitality services. Will it close as originally intended sometime in September of 2016, or will it live on as a reminder of a lost brand name? This means of course that the next question to be asked is, how did Howard Johnsons fail? With many establishments down Route 66 we can often point out the shift in traffic from Route 66 to the interstates, bypassing small towns and their dining and lodging establishments. Howard Johnson's however hit its stride in the era of the interstate, during the 60’s and 70’s, and didn’t just occupy Route 66 but dominated the East Coast and appeared mostly in larger towns everywhere else. Much as Denny’s and McDonalds are today so to was Howard Johnsons in its heyday set up strategically near interstate exits. So just what happened?

The fact of the matter was that Howard Johnsons was victim of its own success, as it set a gold standard many were quick to follow. Best Western Motels for instance has many such motel/restaurant combinations such as Gila Bend, Arizona’s Space Age Cafe and Motel and Mount Carmel, Utah’s Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge.  As far as stand alone restaurants of similar faire, IHOP took a note out of Howard Johnsons book and used blue roofs on their restaurants to catch the eye of passing travelers, and Denny’s has had that famous yellow sign. On top of that the continued growth and variety of fast food restaurants in the 1980’s also dug into Howard Johnsons market of passing travelers. By the late 80’s though, with the Howard Johnson restaurants now divested from the Howard Johnson brand it became clear the restaurants as a chain were failing and franchise owners set adrift to sink or swim. Many choosing to save their businesses eventually cut ties with the Howard Johnson brand and set out to attach themselves to new franchises such as Denny’s or IHOP, or set out on their own independently like the aforementioned Crown Railroad Cafe in Flagstaff. As owners jumped ship, or just lost their restaurants entirely the number of Howard Johnson restaurants dwindled till we are where we currently stand with one last restaurant.

Unlike Whiting Brothers or the abandoned traveler town of Conway, TX which were victims of changing times and of the interstate, Howard Johnson restaurants were just a victim of a mismanagement of a brand name, and of the franchise in general. With that said it’s still sad to see the brand name pass, especially if you remember having eaten at Howard Johnsons while traveling as a kid. Not all is lost though since the motel chain, at least for now, lives on under Wyndham Hotels careful management.

By the way, if I peeked you interest with Howard Johnson's and their history be sure to check out its a great website full of memorabilia and historical info about HoJo's in their heyday.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Healing on Route 66

It had been a very long September, and we finally found ourselves heading east and back to Chicago in early October. The one week trip to California for my wifes mothers funeral had turned into three, and left us drained both physically and mentally. So with no rush to return home and needing time to switch gears in between, we decided to try to follow Route 66 home where we could.

The second day out we left Needles, CA and made our way into Arizona. We slowly lost the morning clouds and fall haze, as the sky opened up and gave us beautiful light blue skies with little puffy white clouds. In a way such skies seem to be natures definition of the happiness one gets when hitting the open road. Even though our hearts where still pretty heavy from what we had gone through in California, and what we were heading back to in Illinois, we felt as if we had some time to smile, laugh, and just enjoy being on the journey itself and being together as a family.

When we got close to Winslow, AZ it was clear that we needed to stop somewhere for lunch and it was at that point I made the suggestion we stop off at the La Posada Hotel's, Turquoise Room. Even though we had stayed at the La Posada before, we had yet to eat at the Turquoise Room and not having done so had always haunted my wife and I. We pulled off I-40 and stopped to fill our tank up at a local gas station, and as I climbed out of the car my legs felt as they usually do after hours behind the wheel, stiff, shaky and needing a good stretch, and that meant it was definitely a good time for lunch. So with my duty to my Jeep fulfilled it was time for my family and I to do our duty to ourselves and get a bite to eat, so off to the La Posada and the Turquoise Room we went. At that point it had been over five years since we had been to the La Posada last, and we were stunned by the changes we saw. True to their word the hotels owners had restored Mary Jane Colters crown jewel to its Harvey House days glory, and even improved upon it. The dirt parking lot was now paved in the section closest to eastbound Route 66, while the section closest to the hotel itself was now the home to one of the most beautiful examples of a Southwestern garden we had ever seen.

In many ways the restorations and improvements seemed to fulfill Colters original vision of the hotel, and the fictionalized history she assigned to it, to assist her in its architecture and design. In Arnold Berke's Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest the author gets in depth with Colters original concept of the hotel, and its fictional mythos. For her backstory for the La Posada, Colter envisioned the hotel as a sprawling hacienda estate started by 17th century Spanish settlers, who in future generations would rise to prominence by raising cattle on the Northern Arizona plains. Each generation and century would add to the grand hacienda, turning it from a simple ranch home into and impressive mansion estate fit for the families lavish lifestyle, and many visitors. This fictional backstory gave Colter the guidance she needed in planning everything from the general layout of the hotel, to the fine details within it's decor, furnishings, landscaping, and even down to the Turquoise Rooms china patterns.

As we got into the Turquoise Room, it all came back to us from our prior visit how grand this grand dinning room really was. The Spanish Revival decor, rich with its Talavera, tapestries, bright colors, and red Spanish tile truly evoked the Southwestern spirit of design, that gives one a sense of grandeur, and openness. In many ways it also evoked feelings of warmth and welcoming, that made it clear the Turquoise Room would be more like an experience than just a meal. Despite hosting a larger event the staff still welcomed us in, sitting us in back near a window overlooking the active BNSF tracks, and panoramic plains beyond. Sitting there at that particular moment and time we got the feeling of being where we were suppose to be, and a sense of being home while away came over us.

It wasn't to much longer before we had food in front of us, starting with the Turquoise Rooms unforgettable corn bread. My wife dug into the scrumptious agave, honey, and butter topped corn bread and began to tear up a little. Not only was it a wonderful tasty delight, but it had reminded her of something her mother would have loved, and something of she had shared with her once before. As lunch carried on my wife's sadness began to fade and a smile came over her face, as she realized the meal reminded her of so many good times the two of them had together. In a way it was far more than just corn bread, ice tea, braised beef, and a Ceasar salad, but a healing experience. The warm sunshine, good food, the Turquoise Room, and the La Posada itself helped to remind my wife that even in mourning, the right circumstances, and environments could heal.

With our bellies full, we bid the Turquoise Room farewell and walked around the La Posada for a bit. The mixture of southwestern decor and creative fine art details helped to temporarily remove us from everything, and we lost ourselves for a bit. Mentally we all became a little more relaxed, and accepting of our situation, yet also optimistic. Now, I'm not going to claim the La Posada is a place for healing or closure, but for us on that trip two days out from a dark event in our lives the La Posada, and Turquoise Room helped bring us closer to healing.

As we set out on the road again we continued to travel Router 66 where we could. As we visited some of our old haunts along the way we continued to come together as a family remembering better times when we traveled the route together, and healing through that. The day after the La Posada and Turquoise Room, we would reach Amarillo, TX  by mid to late-afternoon. For my wife, one site she always loved along Route 66 was Cadillac Ranch, a place she had photographed extensively on our first trip and a place she could recollect her mother always wanted to visit upon seeing those photos. Wishing to leave her mark in memory of her mother my wife decided that she too would like to add some graffiti of her own to the site.  So we dropped into a Home Depot a few miles up the road to buy bright red spray paint, something the staff there seemed accustomed to seeing by the smile on their faces when we told them. We must have spent a good hour and a half walking around the six derelict and half buried road yachts as my wife photographed them again, and left graffiti in memorial to her mother on a few of them. Again the healing process kicked in and although my wife did cry a little while there and after, the ability to bring some part of her mother to Cadillac Ranch did seem to help.

The day after that we would see the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a place my son had always loved along the route. After fighting traffic through Oklahoma City, and Tulsa we hit the giant blue whale and former waterpark around late morning/earlier afternoon, or to put it another way in time for an impromptu picnic which had to take place in the car do to early fall winds. For some strange reason every time we visit the iconic Route 66 landmark we tend to be there by ourselves, or maybe briefly with one other group of people. After geocaching the site, we took our pictures of ourselves in the whale recreating our stances and poses from previous visits and than took a few moments to sit and talk at the whale themed tables placed around the site. It's a quiet spot actually despite the noise from the road, a former stretch of Route 66 and now busy county road, nearby. The sun, fresh air and sound of wind blowing through the trees was a much needed respite and gave us the energy to push forward on our attempt to make it home that day, but also made us smile and laugh a bit as we revisited old memories from previous visits there. Again a healing moment bought on by the uniqueness of a site on Route 66.

The reminder of our trip would be uneventful at best, and hours after leaving the Blue Whale of Catoosa we would make it home in the early AM hours. Being home again would be surreal for the first few days, especially as we made very little contact with anybody, and mainly rested up from the long trip, and before catching up with the real world. As the next few months would roll out things would be hard for us in many different ways, but the healing and memories we had on our trip back would often carry us through.