I went to Winslow, Arizona for the same reason everyone else goes: to say they’ve been to the town mentioned in The Eagles’ 1972 hit, “Take It Easy.”
I have always liked The Eagles, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan. I am, however, obsessed with the charming and talented singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, whose responsibility for this enormously popular song is all too often overlooked. He co-wrote it with the recently deceased Eagles bandmember, Glenn Frey. As legend has it, Jackson Browne penned the infamous line “I’m standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see.” He got stuck, and his neighbor, Glenn Frey, stopped by and contributed the next lyric, “It’s a girl my Lord in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”
People weren’t just slowing down in Winslow today; they were stopping, taking pictures, and spending money – all thanks to a tourist destination centered entirely around this song.
Winslow’s relationship with the tourist industry has gone through several drastic hot and cold spells. It first became a destination 1926, when Route 66 opened and followed a path straight through the heart of downtown Winslow. Because this highway was flat, it quickly became a popular trucking route. When the Dust Bowl drove many families west, Route 66 became even more well-traveled. The paving of the road in 1938 and the uptick in cross-country shipping that accompanied World War I increased traffic yet again, as did the dawn of Los Angeles as a major vacation destination. All of these drive-through visitors demanded services, resulting in a proliferation of shops, restaurants, hotels, and gas stations.
In addition to Route 66, Winslow had – and still has – a train line running through it. To take advantage of that access, a stately hotel was built in 1930 right next to the tracks. Ironically, it was designed by Mary Colter and built by the Fred Harvey Company – two names you’ll find familiar if you read my recent blogposts on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the Desert View Watchtower. This hotel boasted numerous famous visitors during its heyday, from John Wayne to Fred Astaire, and their headshots still adorn the hotel’s hallways.
The heyday came to a screeching halt when Interstate 40 was built, supplanting Route 66 as the primary east-west corridor through northern Arizona in 1977. Winslow, which until 1960 been the biggest city in northern Arizona, became a near ghost town for the next twenty years.
Enter “Standin’ On the Corner Park.” The idea for this economic rejuvenation plan was hatched by a local non-profit dedicated to revitalizing Winslow’s downtown. The Standin’ on the Corner Foundation recruited local businesses’ and residents’ support for a park they envisioned – one that would be entirely dedicated to the boomer anthem that mentions their city’s name. In 1999, the park was completed and opened to the public.
Its centerpiece is, of course, a statue of the a man standing on the corner. He’s a bronze, created by artist Ron Adamson, depicted leaning against a lamppost with a guitar at his feet. Behind him is a mural with the words “Winslow, Arizona” emblazoned across the top and window scenes by muralist John Pugh below.
Just last year, a second bronze was added to the park to commemorate Glenn Frey’s (a founder member of The Eagles) death. He’s portrayed in classic ‘70’s garb, complete with long hair and a moustache, hanging out on the corner with his hands in his pockets.
I hung out on the corner for a while, too – taking pictures, drinking a black cherry old-fashioned at the Soda Shoppe across the street, and watching the show. About half the people I saw were clad in black leather from head to toe and had arrived on Harleys. They took pictures of each other in every possible configuration while a non-stop Eagles soundtrack (well, there were Don Henley solo, Glenn Frey solo, Joe Walsh solo and Poco tunes thrown in too; they were all songs from artists occupying branches on The Eagles’ family tree) was piped into the intersection by one of the gift shops on the corner. This strategy must do something for business, because the bikers were buying up t-shirts, baseball hats, and tin Route 66 signs for their man caves. I watched a sixty-something woman in full leathers pay $19.99 for a “Take It Easy” dishtowel.
I’m not sure many people ventured out the four block area surrounding the park. I did, and I found the photographic motherlode.
Winslow is blessed with magical light – at least, it was on this late September afternoon. A warm Arizona sun lit stuccoed walls and iron posts in a way that made them seem to have personality, and the shadows cast behind fenceposts, walls, and window sashes served to effectively accentuate the borders that exist between these objects and their contexts. Winslow doesn’t have a lot of trees. It does have a lot of industrial-type buildings. These two features, in combination with a bright blue sky, made for incredibly striking images.
Winslow also has an unmistakably old-school feel. While I read in several places that the city had been frozen in time for the twenty years between the closure of Route 66 and the opening of the Standin’ on the Corner Park, I’m not sure it’s yet fair to say that is has fully rejoined the present-day. I saw cars that I haven’t seen since I was a child riding a banana-seated bicycle in 1979 New Jersey – Lincoln Town Cars, Plymouth Volares, Cadillac Sedan de Villes, and, of course, a couple of El Caminos. Motel and restaurant signs were written in 1950’s fonts, and many storefronts looked like they served as the set for American Graffiti.
While I was in heaven snapping photos at every turn, I felt a little strange walking past the locals in front of the pawn shop, the thrift store, and the car repair yard. Quite a few were Native American (the Navajo Reservation is quite close by). Some were clearly homeless, and others looked like they might be heading that way. They weren’t driving Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierras to be “retro”; they were driving them because that’s what they had to drive. Unlike me, they weren’t in the thrift store to see if they could score some quirky piece of “Take It Easy”- era clothing from Winslow, AZ; they were in there because they needed to be. I know there are still many railroad jobs in Winslow, and clearly the gas stations, hotels, and restaurants affiliated with both Route 66 and I-40 create work as well. This is low-paying, unskilled work, however; and I wondered just how much trickle-down there has been from Winslow’s economic revitalization.
But that’s what I think about, all the time. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy,” Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey said in this infamous song, counseling generations of Americans to get out of their heads. I can follow their advice when I am wandering with my camera; silencing the demons is more than half of the reason I explore these places, after all. Still, there are human beings living in these cities, whether they are memorialized in song or not. And I worry about their daily struggles.
After I got back to Flagstaff, I did a little more investigation into the history of this iconic song. It never takes much arm twisting for me to watch videos of Jackson Browne talking about his songs (or singing, or playing piano, or reading from the telephone book), and in my various laps through YouTube, I learned that the image of the girl in the truck came to him in here in Flagstaff, not in Winslow – although he had broken down in Winslow sometime before.
Supposedly, when he was being checked out by someone like “the girl – my Lord – in a flatbed Ford,” he was standing at the corner of Route 66 and Switzer Canyon Road – the street I happen to live on. This intersection is exactly one mile from my apartment. There’s a Dog Haus sausage joint there now; locals say that at the time it was a Wienerschnizel chain.
Jackson combined a Flagstaff image with a Winslow broken-down-vehicle experience and baked them together to make the perfect cake. It’s what musicians do. It’s what the city of Winslow did to get back on their feet. Heck, it’s what I do to tell you a story. And it works.