VIDEO: State balladeer sings of drive from Flagstaff

VIDEO: State balladeer sings of drive from Flagstaff

By Laurie Merrill / ADOT Communications
December 28, 2020

It’s hard to imagine a time before a modern Interstate 17 Black Canyon Freeway could carry travelers from Phoenix to Flagstaff.

But Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s official balladeer for more than 50 years, croons a song of what it was like before the Black Canyon Freeway connected the two cities to a time when it took 8 hours to make the trip.

Those days of yore, circa the mid-1950s, are captured in a song he likes to perform called “Rock Springs,” an homage to a family’s holiday pilgrimage from Flagstaff down to Phoenix. Children rode in the back of a pickup truck along with the tree for grandma and the dog. The song was written by Dean Cook, Lon Austin, and Tony Norris. 

The song begins:

It was snowing up in Flagstaff but we knew that the desert would be hot.

So we crawled beneath the blankets. The dog always got the warmest spot, woof woof.

It was 2 days to Christmas and we crawled into the back of dad’s old truck.

Eight hours down to Phoenix --  if we didn’t run out of water, tires or luck.

The ballad tells of a meandering route through Oak Creek Canyon, the Cleopatra Mine, Mayer and Bumble Bee. Much of this was along the Old Black Canyon Highway, scratched out of the 1878 Black Canyon stagecoach trail.

Construction on today's I-17 started in 1956, and wasn't finished in northern Arizona until August 1978. In 1978, the minimum wage was $2.65, Home Depot was founded and "Night Fever," by the Bee Gees, was the top song.

From the shade of Oak Creek Canyon up to the Cleopatra Mine

A second breakfast down in Mayer on Highway 69 .

It’s a dusty road to Cordes then on down to Bumble Bee.

Ah we are heading down to Grandma's and we brought the Christmas Tree.

Back then, motorists more often than not would stop in Rock Springs to fill their radiators and bellies with the water the place is named for. The pies that now draw motorists off the freeway came much later. 

The song’s chorus reflects the tradition:

And we’ll stop at old Rock Springs, where the water flows so clean

Cool water in the desert was a thirsty traveler's dream.

And we’d stop at old Rock Springs, where the water flows so clean

Cool water in the desert was a thirsty traveler's dream.

However, in the final chorus, the first line reflects the new main Rock Springs attraction:  

And we’ll stop at Old Rock Springs, for that pie we love so dear.

To listen to Dolan as he croons about this delightful trip please watch the video. Arizona Department of Transportation photographers, videographers and writers were fortunate to have the opportunity to record three songs performed by Ellis when he visited the ADOT studio in December 2019. This song was one of those. Another was about the "I-10 highway." 

Ellis fell in love with "Rock Springs" when he heard it performed in 2003 and decided it should be part of his repertoire. Ellis has written 100s of songs since crossing the Arizona state line with his pregnant wife in 1959, making a childhood dream come true.

During his storied career, Ellis has performed before millions of people -- including hundreds of thousands of Arizona school children -- won a Grammy Award as a member of the New Christy Minstrels and been inducted into the AZ Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, among many other career highlights.

Another dream come true for Ellis was the founding of the Arizona Folklore Preserve in Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, which preserves songs celebrating Arizona’s heritage and culture.

You can learn more about it at

You can learn more about Ellis, his performance schedule, history and songs at