It was 1964, I was 5 and I was going to met a real cowboy. At least that’s how I remember it. Mom and Dad had just bought a new 1965 Chevy II Nova Super Sport and we were driving to California.
My parents had been talking about this trip for a little over a year, Mom had a sister that lived in San Francisco she wanted to visit, and Dad’s brother lived in Phoenix, Arizona. All I cared about was meeting a cowboy like John Wayne, or the Lone Ranger.
It was one of the last years before interstate highways. Route 66 was still America’s Main Street, but the writing was on the wall for many of the roadside attractions and small businesses, which are now memories.
Some of the details are foggy now, 40 some years later. I don’t remember much about the first part of the trip at all. Nothing is really that exciting about restaurants or motels to a 5 year old kid. But when it came to the sights of the wild west and my chance to meet that cowboy, that’s the part of the trip I remember.
Riding through the Petrified Forest was the first thing that put me to awe. Seeing what looked like giant trees laying on their sides, but they weren’t trees. No, instead they were rocks. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina I knew what a big tree looked like, but here was rocks that looked like some of the fallen trees from back home.
And it was right in the middle of a place called the Painted Desert. I couldn’t believe all the colors I was seeing, it really did look like someone had taken a big paint brush and painted everything as far as you could see.
Every where I looked there was something that amazed me. I could just imagine Indians over each hill and wagon trains around every turn. I just knew it wouldn’t be long before I met my cowboy.
Yep, to me Arizona was the wild west back then, the giant Saguaro Cactus, passing through small towns claiming populations of 7 with buildings built only on one side of the road. I remember riding through ghost towns, sitting in the back seat of that Nova trying to get a glimpse of a ghost peering out of the old run down buildings. It was like watching one of my favorite westerns and I was expected to see a shootout at the OK Corral at any moment.
When we got to my Uncles house in Phoenix we had been on the road for what seemed like ages. The grownups were talking about the places to visit and things to see, but I was just glad to be out of that car. It had been a week since we left home and I was ready to play.
It wasn’t long though before my Uncle had us back in the car. First we headed to northern Arizona to visit a place I’ll never forget, Montezuma Castle. The sight of those adobe buildings built into the side of a cliff has stuck with me my whole life. Sometimes I believe that seeing that place and hearing the mysteries behind it at such a young age is why I enjoy history so much even today.
Then we traveled on northward to probably the most famous tourist site in Arizona, The Grand Canyon. I remember begging my parents to go on the mule ride into the canyon, but my Mom wasn’t having any part of that.
Finally after almost another week riding around northern Arizona we were back in Phoenix at my Uncles house, and I was ready for a few days out of the car. Not only that, but I still had not met my cowboy. I had worn my black cowboy hat and my 6 shooter cap pistols every where we went, but I was starting to think I was the only cowboy in Arizona and I wasn’t a real cowboy!
But that was soon to change. the next adventure my Uncle had planned for us was to head south to a small town named Tombstone. We were going to visit the Boothill Graveyard.
Now I was tired of riding in that car, and I had no idea what could be so much fun about going to see a graveyard.
It wasn’t until we pulled into Tombstone I started to understand. There it was the OK Corral I had finally made it to a wild west town and I was going to meet my cowboy!
Everywhere I looked was cowboys and reminders of the old west, even the buildings were right out of my favorite westerns. Walking through the graveyard I made my Mom read me each one of the grave markers, I was so excited to be there and to see everything.
Then it happened, we were having lunch at a restaurant in Tombstone, I was wearing my black cowboy hat along with my six-shooter cap pistols, when our waitress asked a local to come over to our table. Wearing his black cowboy hat, I’ll never forget that man looking down at me and saying “There’s not enough room in this town for two black hats!”
I had finally met my cowboy, and he was calling me out!
My parents had taken many road trips during my young life. We had taken weekend trips through the mountains into Tennessee, rode the Blue Ridge Parkway, and traveled down to Florida, but this was the adventure of a lifetime for me. After all, I got to meet a cowboy!
And lived to tell about it!