CNN reported that gasoline prices reached $3.79 for a gallon of regular unleaded in Needles, California, yesterday.
That reminded me of the first time I ever saw Needles, one morning in the spring of 1952. It is an untold saga in the history of Route 66, once “the main street of America.”
I spent my formative years in Flagstaff. It was was a small town, and like teen-agers everywhere, we got restless. My friends and I were wanderers.
One of our outlets was to drive to other towns to observe the social scene–Winslow, Williams, even the sleepy crossroads at Sedona.
Or we could go to Ash Fork, 48 miles west of Flagstaff, to get a cup of coffee and see if there was another girl in town.
Ash Fork wasn’t much to look at, but it was a hub of sorts. One branch of U.S. 89 met U.S. 66 there, and the railroad from Phoenix joined the Santa Fe mainline at Ash Fork.
What made the trip worthwhile was Ash Fork Hill. The last eight miles was downhill, dropping 2,000 feet in elevation. A few miles west of Williams, where Ash Fork Hill began, we’d kick the car out of gear and let it coast toward Ash Fork along narrow, bending Route 66.
I could tell you that we did this to save gasoline, which was always more expensive than necessary along The Mother Road.
But gas prices had nothing to do with going to Ash Fork. It was a thrill ride, always undertaken at night.
There was a challenge at the end of the ride. The last few hundred feet into Ash Fork sloped upward slightly, and we tried to maintain enough momentum to actually enter the town.
It is my recollecton that this little uptick always defeated us. We had to start the engine to reach the cafe in Ash Fork.
Except for one dark night. We had previously coasted down Ash Fork Hill in assorted vehicles–my buddy Mark’s 1938 Ford, a heavier 1938 Buick borrowed from Mark’s uncle, my father’s 1947 Oldsmobile.
Then I acquired, for a brief time, the perfect car for Ash Fork Hill. It was a 1932 Chrysler Royal Eight sports coupe, which at that time was only 20 years old.
It was long, low-slung and sporty, with wire wheels and a spare tire well in each sweeping front fender.
The machine was beginning to decay from lack of proper maintenance, which is probably why the guy sold it to me for $200.
For all its sporty looks, it was heavy. The hood stretched out over a straight eight-cylinder engine. It had doors that opened from the front, and a fully upholstered rumble seat behind.
We figured that if we put some weight in the rumble seat, nothing would keep that Chrysler from reaching Ash Fork.
We recruited a friend, Tony the Tree. Tony worked weekends and summers in his father’s small logging business. His torso was as stout as the trunk of a hundred-year-old ponderosa pine.
When the log-loader broke down, his dad would whistle for Tony, who could load logs by hand.
We helped Tony the Tree into the rumble seat, promising him double cheeseburgers when we got to Ash Fork.
At Williams, Mark took the wheel. He was the more skilfull, more daring driver. We opened up the windshield to get some wind in our faces. The windshield was very shallow, split in the middle and hinged at the top, a 1932 approach to airconditioning.
At the top of Ash Fork Hill, Mark put the car in neutral and the Chrysler began to gather speed. I tried not to think about how far down it was if we went over the side.
That heavy car clung to the road, and Mark steered resolutely. He also resolutely kept his foot off the brake; momentum was our game.
Fortunately, traffic on Route 66 was light. We made it to the bottom of the hill in 7 minutes flat. We could hear Tony the Tree singing “Ghost Riders In The Sky.”
As we reached the bottom of the hill and the road slanted upward, I called out, “Lean forward, Tony.” I need not have bothered.
The Chrysler rolled right through Ash Fork. Mark had long since turned off the ignition, but the car kept going, seemingly propelled by some mystic interial energy.
Tony called, “What about my cheeseburgers?” Without speaking, Mark and I agreed–there was no turning back.
The town of Seligman moved over to let us pass. We rolled past Peach Springs, through Truxton Canyon, Valentine, Hackberry, north of where I-40 goes today.
West of Kingman, we faced Sitgreaves Pass through the Black Mountains. We figured that grade would be the end of our free ride.
The Chrysler slowed to a crawl, making about four feet per minute. Just as it seemed we would stop, Tony the Tree climbed over the roof and sat on the hood.
That tipped the front of the car over the summit, and we gained speed going down through Goldroad and Oatman. Our brakes were not good, and Mark had a hard time seeing around Tony, who was trying to climb back over the roof.
I have it on good authority that the thrill we gave Oatman that night caused the government to reroute U.S. 66 in 1954. The highway was moved so that it followed Sacramento Wash around the south end of the mountains–just about where I-40 goes today.
We reached Needles at dawn. We were exhausted, and the Chrysler was depleted. The radiator was steaming, even though the engine had not run for seven hours. We rolled to a stop in front of a cafe.
After paying for breakfast, we came to a sad realization: we had no money left to buy gas. It was 200 miles back to Flagstaff. Gas which would have sold for 29.9 cents a gallon in Phoenix cost 39.9 in Needles.
We hitchiked home, planning to return to pick up the Chrysler.
I caught a ride with a trucker. Watching him row that old Peterbilt back up Ash Fork Hill, using every gear he had, was not nearly so much fun as coasting down through the darkness had been.
I didn’t get back to Needles for a couple of years, and never again saw my Chrysler Royal Eight sports coupe.