Crust lust: The search for pie along Route 66



Rolling down Route 66 reading Burma Shave signs, it occurred to me that these snappy bursts of random information were what spawned Twitter.

I have time to ponder such things because I'm taking a stress-shattering mini-vacation. I'm driving across Arizona on historic Route 66, through small towns and the skeletons of towns, with the windows down and the radio on. Along the way, I stop to eat homemade pie.

During difficult times, people turn to comfort food, and what could be more comforting than pie? Plenty of desserts are trendier, but only one is an institution. Things stop for pie. Making it or eating it. Pie is life's pause button, and that's what I wanted.

I kicked things off at Miz Zip's in Flagstaff, where the pie always tastes like it had been cooling on a windowsill moments before. I ordered peach, not a slice so much as a slab, mounds of sunshine-hued fruit cradled by delicate crust. Since this was the first pie of my journey and I wasn't yet jangly with sugar, I took it a la mode. That joyous collision between peach pie and vanilla ice cream is like biting into summer itself.

I knew Miz Zip's, a Route 66 mainstay since 1952, was the perfect place to start. After that, I continued west on Route 66 -- driving the Mother Road searching for the Mother Dessert.

At first, that involved a bit of hop-scotching, on and off I-40. After Flagstaff, I exited in Williams because the town is a gateway to one of the grandest sights in this part of the state. Not the nearby canyon; I'm talking about the pie case in Pine Country Restaurant.

As soon as you walk in, you spot it, shelves stacked with an array of colorful, almost majestic, creations. Luscious cream pies, crimp-crusted fruit pies and specialty numbers crowned with slabs of chocolate and plump, gleaming berries.

"I wanted to do something to define the restaurant and thought of pies," says pie maker and owner Dee Seehorn. "People have a special connection to pie. You see it in their eyes when they walk through the door."

Seehorn and her staff artisans whip up dozens of culinary masterpieces every morning. When I explained my quest, she steered me toward a strawberry cream cheese only available in summer. It arrived buried under an avalanche of berries and whipped cream and tasted even more delicious than it looked.

As I waddled the streets of Williams, I noticed a new vibrancy to the town. Crowds spilled from shops and music wafted from cafes. Many of the vintage properties that lined old "Double Six" have been spruced up, such as my hotel of choice, the Lodge on Route 66. Owner Rob Samsky saved a former motor court from the wrecking ball and infused the place with a casual luxury featuring travertine floors, solid wood furniture and plush pillow top mattresses. I slept like a pie-fed baby.

The next morning, I bid adios to the soul-crushing efficiency of the interstate just west of Ash Fork. I exited at Crookton Road, a ribbon of nondescript asphalt slashing across the high plateau. Here begins the longest unbroken stretch of Route 66 in existence. The reason it still exists is the preservation efforts by residents of the next town, Seligman.

After Seligman was bypassed by I-40, the town refused to wither. In 1987, local business owners, led by barber Angel Degadillo, formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. They lobbied the state to designate Route 66 a historic highway. By the next year, the state agreed and began posting appropriate signage. Soon, organizations sprang up in other states and around the world, and a wave of Route 66 nostalgia was under way.

Seligman also harbors an essential pie stop, Lilo's Westside Café. Lilo Russell has been baking most of her life, and when she opened the café 15 years ago, word of her skills spread. She makes an assortment of cream pies daily, using mascarpone cheese -- the same cheese used in tiramisu -- to grant them a defiant silkiness.

I opted for a slice of banana split cream pie, a riotous medley of flavors. The crunch of nuts, the melt-in-the-mouth banana and chocolate cream mixed with sweet berries and a zing of chocolate sprinkles. I savored the taste for miles as I torpedoed across grasslands swept by cloud shadows.

There's something liberating about being pointed west under a great beast of a sky with absolutely no schedule to keep; nothing ahead of me but horizon and pie. A true journey always allows room for surprise and wonder.

Truxton barely qualifies as a wide spot in the road, but that's all you need for pie. The Frontier Cafe shows some wear. Stools at the counter are wobbly, but so was I after so many desserts. Owner Betty Sutherland makes everything from scratch, including pie. I ordered coconut cream because it sounded decadently tropical in this sun-spanked outback. Plus, it's not a personal favorite, so it would be easier to push away.

My plan backfired at first bite. It was rich without being overly sweet and reminded me of a pie my grandmother once made for me. It's a memory that hadn't stirred for decades and it flooded back by the forkful. That is the power of pie. Or, as Sutherland came out from the kitchen to explain, "Pie is the universal language of happiness."

After crossing the Hualapai Valley, I made my final pie stop in Kingman at the Silver Spoon Family Restaurant, the kind of place where the staff knows you by your second visit. As people scurried home from work in the late afternoon, I lingered over a delectable slice of deep-dish cherry.

Yet just because I've run out of pie doesn't mean I'm out of road. The most memorable stretch of Route 66, the climb through the Black Mountains to Sitgreaves Pass, lies west of town. Eight miles of winding, tortured ascent with lavish panoramas revealing themselves at every hairpin curve. This section proved so intimidating to early travelers they often hired locals to drive or tow their vehicles over the mountains.

As I aimed towards the horizon the sun dipped below the mountains and the sky turned -- I suddenly noticed -- as golden as pie crust.