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The small town of Williams, Arizona, was founded in 1881 and named for renowned pioneer and frontiersman Bill Williams. A local mountain also bears his name, Bill Williams Mountain, and at its foot lies the South Kaibab Ranger Station of the Kaibab National Forest. In 1984, Williams was the last town on Route 66 that was bypassed by Interstate 40. There is a certain irony in a town named for a prominent explorer and adventurer being put to rest by a highway designed to make possible cross-country travel that Bill Williams could only have dreamt of.
Although I-40 remains a prominent part of the town’s landscape, Route 66 has retained a majority of its former glory. Though now just a one-way road known to the locals as “the Main Drag,” Historic Route 66 is still populated by tourists, cheapish tourist shops, and bright, flashing neon lights.
In the evenings, when the sun sinks just below the horizon and the sky is tinged with an indigo hue, the people from both in and out of town begin to come out en masse. Cruising down the Main Drag at dusk is an experience that many seem to place lowest on their list of touring priorities. It should, in fact, rank as one of the highest. It is a unique experience, one that submerges one in a multitude of worlds. There are tourists from the other side of the Pacific, huddling together with their tour groups and guides, wondering how such a large country as America can leave the title of “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” to such a miniscule Southwestern town. There are northern European tourists, usually without children, very business-like and orderly in their approach to vacation. They stand in line at the local grocery store, toting cases of bottled water, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a reusable water bottle would carry more and be refillable, not to mention far cheaper. And there are, of course, American tourists from parts of the country that could not even begin to imagine the hoodoo landscape of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. They come from places like California, Idaho, Ohio, Maine, Florida, and Rhode Island. Their homes are green, lush, habitable, and do not pose such a constant danger to life and limb as even the most hospitable parts of the Southwest.
These are the ones the Forest Service, the police, and the local emergency services should worry about most. They arrive believing that because Arizona is within the same national borders as their home, they are instinctively prepared for whatever may be thrown at them. They are usually the ones towed out of washes inundated with reddish-brown flash flood waters, the ones helivaced from high canyon walls after running out of water, not a commodity but a true necessity for life out here in Canyon Country.
At night, everyone blends together. They run, scuttle, wave sheepishly to traffic, laugh, talk, shout, and sing under the same bright neon lights. The Main Drag is transformed into a little Vegas. Its one-way roadway lined with a handful of businesses advertising burgers, pizzas, beers, Native American jewelry, leather goods and tobacco is alight with brightly burning reds, pinks, blues, and greens. They reflect off the slick pavement when the summer rains come in, they wash the roads in a bizarre kaleidoscopic light and give the people along the sidewalks a warm, fuzzy feeling that they share with their travelling comrades. Towards the west end of town is a Dairy Queen that looks like it has not been touched in decades. It retains the original painted wooden sign, the traditional and recognizable wood and glass storefront, and a few picnic tables out front along the road. At night, when the sun goes down, people gather out front with to talk and eat under bright fluorescent lights that anywhere else would seem harsh and unwelcoming. It is a warm place, one of friendship and loud talk, and even just driving by it gives one a feeling of happiness and kinship.
At night, the air is different. It loses the harsh, biting heat of the day, humidity rises, and the smells of cool dusk air begin to come out. It is a reinvigorating sensation, one that cannot be recreated anywhere but the high desert. A deep breath of evening air fills the lungs with a sense of camaraderie with all living creatures that share the same air. The crickets chirping from the sides of the roads; the elk, hulking, dark shapes in the night, staring from the prairies; even the javelinas, little wild pigs rooting around in backyards and garbage cans for an evening meal. In such a dangerous place as this, it is the life-giving air that brings all together.
Owen Baertlein is a fourth-year forestry student at the University of Maine with a background in surveying engineering. He recently began spending his summers in Williams, Arizona. (Instagram: @baertphotos.)