Keeping It Straight: A ROUTE 66 STORY - THE LONGHORN RANCH

Boy was it hot! We had left Amarillo late that morning, heading west, and the summer sun had been beating through the back window of the Packard to the point I was sure my neck was sunburned. Dad had been passing trucks and fighting traffic for over 100 miles, while mom dug her fingernails into the passenger door armrest every time he swung out into oncoming traffic to pass.

"First place I see, I'm gonna turn off," he said, a note of conviction in his voice. "Maybe this damned traffic will let up a bit if we take a break."

The first place we came to was Cline's Corners, and the lot was so jam-packed dad could not find a place to park. Dad let loose with a few choice curse words and pulled back onto the highway. I glanced out the back window as the building faded into the distance and saw my rubber tomahawk or other equally valuable souvenir disappear in the distance.

"I thought you were going to stop," Mom said.

"Too many cars," Dad grunted as he peered ahead looking for a chance to pass the Greyhound that was lumbering along in front of us.

Peering between my parents, I scanned the road ahead, wondering how much longer it would be before we found another place to stop. I quickly grew bored and turned my attention to a Hardy Boys book I had been working on for a couple of days. Just as Frank and Joe found the dust-covered treasure chest in the cave beneath the old house outside of town, I heard dad say, "This looks like a good one."

Looking up, I saw what appeared to be a frontier town on the south side of the highway. "New Mexico Museum" was emblazoned on one building. "Longhorn Bank" on another. A stagecoach full of kids was pulling out from the "Saloon" as dad wheeled the Packard into a choice parking spot.

Perfect," he said as we climbed from the car.

Looking around, I felt as if I had stepped into a Roy Rogers movie. Everywhere I looked I saw hitchin' posts, false front buildings, and over there was the back end of the stagecoach turning the corner at the end of the row of buildings. Mom and dad headed for the swinging doors of the saloon, and dad looked back at me and said, "Come on, Sport, let's check this place out."

As we went through the doors, I saw a brand burned into the wood next to them. It was the number 2 followed by another number two lying on its side and then the letter P.

"What's that mean, Dad," I asked as I tried to puzzle out the brand.

He stopped and looked at it for about half a minute, then laughed and said, "You'll have to figure that one out for yourself."

Inside, I was amazed at the amount of stuff in the place. There were antiques and junk of every description, and behind the bar were an astounding number of stuffed deer, elk, a bison and even a bear. There was even a two-headed calf along with other oddities of nature.

After an early lunch in the coffee shop we walked outside and I saw the stagecoach was loading up for another trip around the ranch. "It's only a quarter, Dad, can I ride it."

"Sure, why not," he answered, tossing a quarter my way. "It's not every day you get to ride in a real stagecoach."

I was frankly stunned. Dad was a no-nonsense guy when it came to tourist traps, and there was little doubt, even in my 9-year-old mind, that the Longhorn Ranch was a tourist trap.

I paid the driver, a man named Hondo, and climbed aboard. As the coach lurched off on my western adventure, dad said, "We'll be in the bar when you get back. Watch out of Indians."

After the ride and back in front of the Saloon, I watched as one of the other kids on the coach, a cute girl named Shelly, had her picture taken with Mr. Hondo. Her dad had one of those new picture-in-a-minute cameras, and it was really something to see her picture pulled from the back of the camera.

"Would you like a picture with Hondo?" Shelley's dad asked me.

"I sure would," was my instant reply, as excited about the camera as having my picture taken with the stagecoach driver.

Mr. Hondo, who had big bushy mustache, stood with me at the front of the stagecoach as our picture was taken. Shelly's dad pulled out some paper from the camera and said it would "take just a minute." Then he opened the back of the camera and lifted the picture out. I reached for it and he said, "Just a second, Champ. I have to coat it first." He took a small glass tube from his pocket, pulled a funny-smelling rod from it and rubbed it back and forth across the picture.

"There you go,' he said, handing it to me. "Let it dry for a few minutes and you'll have a great souvenir."

"Thank you," I said as I stared at the picture of me, Mr. Hondo and the stagecoach rendered in a warm sepia tone. It was really a strange sensation to see a picture of something that had taken place just a couple of minutes before.

Back in he bar, I found my parents sitting at the bar, a couple of cold, sweating glasses of beer in front of them.

"How was the stagecoach ride, Sport?"

"It was great! Mr. Hondo took us all around in back of the Longhorn Ranch and we saw buffaloes and cows and an Indian village, and I even got my picture taken, see." I held up the picture.

"Well, I'll be dammed. It's one of those Polaroid pictures. Where did you get it?"

"This girl named Shelley. Her dad took it for me. Pretty neat, isn't it?"

"I'll say it is. I sure would like to have seen that camera," dad said as he studied the photograph.

"Do you want to go in the gift shop and get a souvenir?" mom asked.

"Nope, I have a great one right here," I answered, holding up the picture.

I roamed around the place, looking at all of the stuffed and mounted animals for a few minutes while my folks finished their beers, then we left the Longhorn Ranch heading west. The traffic had thinned a bit and the heat didn't seem quite so unbearable. Dad was confident we would make Gallup late in the afternoon and I hoped we'd stay at a motel with a swimming pool.

Today, as I pass the site of the old Longhorn Ranch (New Mexico exit 303 on I-40), I think about Mr. Hondo, the stagecoach, the cute little girl and that Polaroid picture. I wonder whatever happened to that picture and, even more, I wonder what happened to the little kid who stood alongside the stagecoach in his Roy Rogers hat and Gene Autry shirt?