Editor's Note: In Doug Kamholz's quest to sample American exotica, he's drawn to architecture of the appealing sort, old and new. In his latest travels, he follows celebrities from bygone eras to the Great Southwest, where he takes up temporary residence in visionary architect Mary Colter's La Posada. (He prefers Carole Lombard's room.)
by Douglas Kamholz
Who the hell would want to rent a room in some sprawling fake hacienda literally a stone’s throw from much-traveled train tracks? Clark Gable. Amelia Earhart. Albert Einstein. Diane Keaton and a couple U.S. presidents. That’s just a sampling.
And me! The inn is called La Posada. It ranked among those romantic railroad hotels that lured travelers to beauty places of the Great Southwest. The Super Chief out of Chicago and other famous trains stopped in the front yard of La Posada. Passengers stepped down from their iron horses, passed through an iron gate, up the flagstone walk and right in the front door.
The vision of an abandoned hacienda came from the fertile mind of master architect Mary Colter. She is perhaps most famous for Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge, one of her eight works still in use there, but she considered La Posada her ultimate opus. It opened in 1930 as one of Fred Harvey’s Harvey Houses, a chain of rail-line restaurants so renown we have Judy Garland starring in MGM’s The Harvey Girls in 1946. In creating La Posada, Colter had carte blanche to design every detail down to the dishes while the Harvey Company employed area Native Americans as artists and artisans for authentic decor. Its 70 rooms, three restaurants and graceful gathering spaces attracted a fine and famous clientele.
Then that era ended. The Great Depression took its steam, and it went off the rails. Americans took to roads. The hotel closed in 1957. For most of the last half of the 20th century La Posada sank further into adobe dust, its glitz and glory sold off or junked. But its story (and stories) did not die. Along came a new vision and visionary. Allan Affeldt already had an activist history that included the first US-Soviet arena rock concert in Moscow back in 1987. In 1997 he and his wife, artist Tina Mion, bought the sagging hulk of a hotel from the Santa Fe Railroad and began to breathe beauty back into what is now rightly called a living museum. But for all its sumptuousness, it isn’t in some high-rent spot so room rates are quite people-scaled.
The whereabouts of all this wonder will sound familiar to many readers. It stands on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and it is such a fine sight to see. Yes, it is just down the street from that famous corner where songwriters Jackson Browne and Glen Frey exclaimed:
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me.
There is now just the right truck and other details permanently installed in downtown Winslow. And the street that runs by both these destinations is none other than the Mother Road, Route 66. In recent decades Winslow suffered from another American transportation update: I-40 bypasses the town, taking traffic and commerce well away from the central city. Like many places it continues to look for ways, often artful ways, to regain vibrant community life. Winslow is still quite conveniently situated four hours west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and just one hour east of extraordinarily hip Flagstaff, Arizona.
I learned about La Posada by way of an enthused review from our friend Jeanne. I had reason to call her there back in the days when phones were not essentially a body part. When I asked the desk clerk to ring Jeanne’s room, he said, “Well, sir, there are no phones in our rooms.” They did offer to slip a note under her door. I was hooked.
Each of three times I stayed there alone, I swore I wouldn’t go back without my beloved mate. Also each time I saw more rehabilitation and finery throughout the interior. On those solo trips I always took Carole Lombard’s old room in a second-floor corner. I would crank open the old casement window, sit on the wide sill, breathe desert air and listen to frequent clackety-clack on those tracks just over the low south wall. Recent years have seen more and more plantings restored around the main building. Coffee and tea in the sunken garden is a fine way to greet Winslow mornings. On one visit I was sitting at a spacious antique table writing a few dozen postcards when a man brought his daughter over to show her this pre-digital form of communication. We all were amused.
In autumn of 2020, in that worst year of COVID, my wife Sheila and I decided we would risk one trip sleeping in just a couple places between home and Winslow where we booked a week at La Posada. (The inn was so cautious with room keys — actual keys these are — that you had to retrieve yours from a shallow bowl of disinfectant at check-in.) To do this trip right, I dropped Sheila in Albuquerque so she could ride Amtrak and arrive in style while I hightailed it by car with all our luggage and victuals. We rented what’s called the Manager’s Apartment (room 218); it’s where the owners lived during early years of renovation. It has a few extra mod cons
but many original touches including French doors onto a wrought iron balcony facing south. La Posada offers guest earplugs for train noise but we were unbothered. Winslow long ago built car tunnels and overpasses so no whistle need blow in town.
And the food. We dined only twice in the high-end Turquoise Room. It was all rich and succulent. This story is as much about my gregarious spouse as the restaurant, but at our parting meal the manager came over, took our bottle of wine away and replaced it with a better vintage still at the more modest price. Every time I have been in this luxurious setting I have ordered the most local thing on the menu: piki bread, a traditional Hopi wedding delicacy. It’s thinner than phyllo, nearly translucent, and made from ground blue corn, water and juniper ashes.
For food away from the Turquoise Room, we had supplies from La Montanita Food Co-op back in Albuquerque plus take-out from town. Three different friends had sworn they ate at the best Mexican places in Winslow, but when we asked at La Posada, everybody pointed to the food concession at the local airport. This tiny airfield gets to call itself Lindbergh because the famous aviator designed it a hundred years ago using funds from Howard Hughes in a plan to win transcontinental airmail contracts. Of course those hotel workers were right, and we had a fine meal under a pergola on the inn grounds.
Sheila, left, at Little Painted Desert county park, sampled each garden on the grounds, moving with the sun to new turf when she had read two more chapters of bestseller Lab Girl. She was preparing to lead a water quality workshop on the banks of Springfield’s Sangamon River for the NEA’s “Big Read” project in 2021. My reading mostly prepped me for the upcoming ‘20-’21 college basketball season.
Of course there is art everywhere at La Posada, some traditional and some by the irreverent Mion. There is a large table with hundreds of wooden pieces where I played architect and built my own fake hacienda. There was live music nightly. Longtime resident guitarist Khent Anantakai one evening said we had been there so long they should name a room for us. La Posada has recently opened an official museum. It is just down a walkway in the old Santa Fe train depot. It displays hotel artifacts, art from area Navajos and Hopis plus traveling exhibits. We saw a wonderful display there on the surrounding land. It is called Homol’ovi, the Hopi word for “place of the little hills,” and there is nearby state park preserving pieces of a pre-conquest culture.
Within an hour’s drive is Petrified Forest National Park which also includes publicly accessible parts of Arizona’s Painted Desert. Just north of Winslow is Little Painted Desert, a sadly maintained county park with jaw-dropping scenery. Flagstaff is also just an hour away, and my Brooklyn-born friend Harvey says Biff’s Bagels there are as good as any. A bit closer to Winslow is Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, a privately owned giant hole. The standing joke there is about how close the meteor landed to their visitors center.
Leaving all this at week’s end was hard. Departure was softened by our first night back on the road. We stayed at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, the same place we stayed the night before La Posada. It is as iconic as any relic of the glory days of Route 66. Our late artist friend Bob Waldmire drew images of it. (So has Bob Dylan.) The motel got permission from our local Waldmire family to replicate Bob’s likeness and works of his on walls of those (now hardly wide enough) private garages attached to some of their rooms. Moving northeast toward home and relying on an old Smithsonian magazine, we had our first look at that blanket of autumn copper-gold tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills of central Kansas. Eight months later we were back for June’s annua “Symphony in the Flint Hills” where our joy and enchantment became themes of the first of these “Miles with Moxie” travelogues.
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Postscript: To see my companion photo album of 18 shots featuring this month’s locations, those of you with access to Facebook can search for Douglas Kamholz, then click Photos (next to Posts, About and Friends) and click again for Albums and then one last click on the one entitled “Mary’s Masterpiece.”