THEY LEFT Las Vegas at midnight and an hour later they'd crossed the breast of Hoover Dam. It was a Saturday in August in 1950, and my father was headed back to Pennsylvania from California. He'd spent five years in an Army burn unit after the war, so this vacation was long overdue, he told us later. Rolling into Flagstaff early that morning, my father and the friend he was traveling with crashed at a motel on Route 66. Sleeping most of the day, the pair decided to stay in town an extra night before heading out across the Painted Desert toward the scorching plains of New Mexico. They asked the desk clerk where they should go to wash the dust from their mouths. He mentioned a place east of town, so they eased the big two-tone Packard convertible up onto Route 66. Soon they came upon a place like nothing they'd ever seen before: a big barn of a place on the north side of the road called the Museum Club. It was sided with roughhewn pine planks and had a high, steep roof. From the road, it looked like a giant log cabin.

As they walked toward the forked tree that formed the door, they noticed the porch was lined with stuffed buffalo heads. Inside were more stuffed animals, most of them perched in five trees that stood in the middle and on the corners of the dance floor. My dad sat down and tipped a cold one. The place made quite an impression on him because he never stopped repeating the story. He told this one enough times that, although he's gone now, it's firmly fixed in our family's folklore.

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, I'm sitting in that same club on that same road, only now the road is called Santa Fe Avenue and Route 66 has been replaced by Interstate 40. The club, too, has a new name. Although the sign near the road says "Museum Club," locals call it the Zoo Club after its years as a dead-animal museum. It's a Saturday night in July in 1985, and Flagstaff is having the kind of weather that inspires chamber of commerce billboards saying, "Where spring goes for the summer."

The bar hadn't changed much from my father's time. Most of the taxidermy mounts are still there, along with the pine siding and the trees lining the dance floor. One thing that has changed is the smell. The place now has the magical aroma that separates the real honky-tonks from the pretenders: a bouquet of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and old wood. A mix of urban cowpokes, rednecks and Navajos fills the place. I am there meeting a former girlfriend I haven't seen in years. Sauntering in dressed in a silk blouse, strategically ripped 501s and green-suede boots, she looks better than a body ought to. Years ago, she'd left me. A couple years later, we got back together and I returned the favor. After a couple of beers, the conversation turns to what went wrong. A couple more beers and a couple of progressively slower slow dances later, and we were friends again. By midnight a full-scale reconciliation was on.

OF ALL THE GIN JOINTS in all the world, few have the character of the Museum Club. As Arizona's most storied honky-tonk, redneck palace and Route 66 roadhouse, it's a spot that can leave an impression that will last a lifetime.

What's so special about this saloon? Just about everything.
There's the location. This most memorable of roadhouses sits alongside America's great lost highway, Route 66. Although it's now called Santa Fe Avenue, so strong a hold does this road have on the imagination that the name Route 66 will be officially resurrected in Flagstaff in March 1993.

And, if atmosphere were measured like applause, the Zoo Club would send the needle off the scale. Outside, the place still looks much like it has since it opened in 1918-a giant log cabin that's a cross between the set for Bonanza and a whipsaw cook house from the Great White North. Inside, with its 40-foot-high ceiling, dark wood and deer antlers everywhere, the Zoo Club is the kind of place people in Ohio imagine when they think of the Wild West.

There's also a rich musical history contained within its ponderosa-pine frame. The Zoo Club's heyday took place in the Sixties when it was owned by Don Scott, a professional musician who once played steel guitar for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. Because Scott was friends with many of the biggest names in country music, Flagstaff soon had a country-music club the equal of any outside Nashville. Everyone from Wanda Jackson to Waylon and Willie played the Zoo Club-Willie went so far as to fall in love with the owner's daughter.

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Robert Baird