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Hockey night on Route 66

Our travels have taken us to Arizona, where the sky is blue, the sun is hot and my forearms have turned an interesting shade of pink.

On our way to the Grand Canyon on Sunday afternoon, we stopped off at Williams, a small town off the Interstate 40. We were looking for somewhere to have a bite to eat and watch the hockey game.

Let me explain. I am a late convert to what I still refer to as ice hockey, and being married to a Toronto girl makes me a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Leafs are a big team (Toronto is as hockey-mad a city as anywhere in Canada) but they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. Being a fan of a football team that has never won a major trophy, I sympathise.

Anyway, as this was the first time in nine years that they’d made the play-offs, Allison wanted to watch a game if we possibly could. Sunday was the day of game six (of seven) in the Leafs’ semi-final clash with the Boston Bruins.

Our destination that day was a place called Tusayan, which is not to be confused with Tucson and is located just south of the Grand Canyon National Park. Knowing that by the time we got to Tusayan the game would be over, we decided to stop at Williams to see if we could find a sports bar.

What we found when we turned off the Interstate was a piece of history – a relic of motoring in a bygone age. By coming off the I-40, we’d turned onto Route 66.

Built in the 1920s, Route 66 ran through eight states, linking Chicago with Los Angeles via a series of small towns and country byways. It became notorious during the Great Depression, when economic migrants used it to head west (it was during this time that John Steinbeck came up with the nickname ‘The Mother Road’). A couple of decades later, Route 66 became synonymous with the freedom of the open road, and many motels and diners with neon signs sprang up on its length as people came to the Mother Road to get their kicks.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The coming of the Interstate highway system – the motorway to us Brits – bypassed the towns. Route 66 passed into legend as it was replaced by the I-40 (although there are stretches in western Arizona where the Interstate passes to the south of the old road, meaning that some parts of Route 66 are still intact). In 1984, Williams was the last of the Mother Road towns to be bypassed.

Williams still has several motels with neon signs, and these days its economy centres on tourists looking for a piece of Route 66, usually while on their way to see the Grand Canyon. There are gift shops advertising that you can ‘get your gifts on 66’, diners that look like they used to be gas stations, a shop advertising that it has the world’s largest metal Route 66 sign and even a waxwork model of Elvis. There is also a microbrewery. Lots of these have sprung up in Arizona in recent years, their presence and evident success giving the lie to the stereotype that American beer begins and ends with Coors and Bud Light. As well as a Route 66 fridge magnet, I bought a six-pack of the Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s Sunset Amber Ale and was ID’d for the first time in 15 years.
All we really wanted, though, was a bar where we could watch the hockey while getting something to eat. We succeeded on both counts with the superb World Famous Sultana Bar.
Located on Route 66 itself (the Mother Road being the main street of the towns it passed through), this is the oldest bar in town, and it remained open as a speakeasy during Prohibition. “Today you can guzzle your brew legally, play pool, meet colorful locals and keep an eye on the stuffed mountain lion,” proclaimed our guidebook.

As we walked past, a woman who turned out to be the barmaid was having a cigarette outside. She greeted us with a friendly “Hi, come on in” (all the bar staff in this country are friendly, as indeed is every representative of the service industry we’ve encountered so far) and when asked if there was a TV showing the hockey, her response was: “I’ll put it on anything you like.”

As we walked in, I noticed a ‘no firearms’ sign. We took our seats at the bar and ordered drinks. A sign behind the bar proclaimed that minors could only come into the bar if accompanied by a ‘parent, guardian or spouse’ – a reminder that the legal drinking age here is 21. As well as the stuffed mountain lion, they had a stuffed bear and an elk’s head over the door. What with these and the wood panelling, the oldest bar in town had a well-worn, old-fashioned air to it.

As it happened, the TV was already showing the NBC feed for the CBC coverage of the Leafs-Bruins game (we could tell it was the CBC coverage because they showed the Hockey Night in Canada logo). We settled down for some hockey action and said hello to some of the locals, who included a man with a blue beard and an old couple who’d just been to a Beach Boys concert in nearby Flagstaff.

The World Famous Sultana Bar is located next to a restaurant called the Singing Pig, and when we asked for food the proprietor of both the bar and the restaurant came over and introduced herself as Kathi. When asked what she would recommend, she unhesitatingly chose the pulled pork fries with a side of chilli sauce. Kevin, she informed us, cooks the pork for 14 hours. Kevin, it turned out, is her husband as well as the cook. He was the man with the blue beard we’d seen earlier.
Well, what can I say? The food was great, and the Leafs won. We couldn’t have asked for more of our visit to Route 66.

Before we left Williams, though, Kathi had some final advice and it was to Allison, who would be the navigator for the drive up to Tusayan, which it turned out I had been mispronouncing: “You’re the lookout. There’s elk on the road at dusk. Elk can do a similar amount of damage to a car as moose, which is to say a lot. Luckily, we did not encounter any!

The following evening, we found ourselves in Flagstaff, another old Route 66 town, and watched game seven in a bar called Brews & Cues. There, I got to try meatloaf for the first time while sampling some of the next-door Beaver Street Brewery’s beer, and the Leafs somehow managed to lose after being 4-1 up at one stage. Let’s just say that the food and the drink were better than the game.

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