Less Tom Joad than Tom Watson, more Jack Kerouac than Jack Nicklaus, I air-kissed the brown skies of Los Angeles good-bye. I was thirsty for the road, for long, lonesome draughts of two-lane blacktop. Was Route 66 still out there, still winding through Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Amarillo, Texas, and Hydro, Oklahoma?I meant to find out, and to play some golf along the way.
Caprice would be my mistress—I'd toss my clubs in the trunk and head east, stopping at every course I saw. The Big Thinkers who forged the Chicago-to-L.A. link back in 1926 never pictured a hacker like me hightailing it down their road some eight decades later in a purple PT Cruiser. They built a road for truckers in need of flat highways and for westward-bound dreamers like the Joads of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, who escaped the Depression-era Dust Bowl on this selfsame diagonal. Today, what's left of Route 66 is traversed largely by nostalgia buffs bearing piles of books and maps to tell them where in tarnation the fabled road persists.
The first leg of my odyssey took me down Foothill Boulevard, east of Pasadena, where I passed cavernous franchise stores and sad-looking trailer parks. Soon these streets gave way to more open road than you could shake a seven-iron at, as the Route spooled into the brown-scrub mountains of California's 25,000-square-mile Mojave Desert. There's not much golf in this tumbleweed moonscape, though I was briefly suckered off the highway by a faded sign reading Sun & Sky Golf Club near downtown Barstow—a swank address if you happen to be a scorpion. There were no walkie-talkied attendants to greet my arrival, no plaid-clad dandies on the driving range. In fact, I was the only person within a mile of this defunct desert layout. The first tee was still marked by a metal sign, albeit one strangled by weeds, so I grabbed a ball and a long iron and flailed away for auld lang syne, aiming at a former fairway camouflaged by a layer of sand and knee-high brush. A turkey vulture circled over my high slice. Hurrying back to the highway, I passed an abandoned trailer with the words free fish stories scrawled on its side.
That day I pushed clear through to Flagstaff, Arizona, and got in nine holes the next morning at Elephant Rocks, a piney roller coaster of a course 6,800 feet above sea level. The foursome ahead was playing at a Sunday pace, so I detoured to the wide-open back nine, where a grizzled gent in a marshall's cart held forth for ten minutes on the virtues of high-country living. Later I mentioned him to the pro, who rolled his eyes and said the old guy didn't work there; he just liked to hijack the marshall's cart and take spins around the course.
The craggy path from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, New Mexico, begs for a paraphrase of the old pop ditty: Get your kitsch on Route 66. The Cruiser passed innumerable Indian trading posts, the Wigwam Motel (sleep in a teepee) and the sprawling El Rancho Hotel in Gallup. I would have stopped at the latter—a place where Bogart and Errol Flynn holed up when on location here—but for a pair of ornery-looking grifters giving me the evil eye from the front stoop. So it was on to the new Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort near Albuquerque, where forty-five championship holes wind through the Santa Ana Pueblo around twenty sites sacred to the namesake tribe. After a scenic triple bogey at the Twin Warriors course and a trip to the casino up the road, where I dropped a C-note playing blackjack, it occurred to me that I must have failed to perform the appropriate ablutions. Note to self: Next time, appease local deities before doubling down.
It's a long, golfless road from Albuquerque to Amarillo—golfless unless you count the nine-hole muni in Tucumcari, where the former mayor got demoted and is now the club pro! I made Amarillo that evening and found a petri dish of local nightlife at Dyer's Barbecue, where I ordered the brisket and the spareribs. At the bar stood one Lark Lamb, whom I knew to be a fellow golfer by his Titleist cap. Lamb spoke of his home track, La Paloma Golf Club. Playing through a two-entrée hangover the next morning, I found its lakes and grabby fescue rough a formidable test.