August 19, 2001

An Asphalt Odyssey

You can get your kicks and a big dose of kitsch on Route 66, where nostalgia and reality meet.

Eastbound Route 66, Goffs, California (Chris S. Ervin)
Reed Johnson
Los Angeles Times

DANBY, Calif. — Many miles to the west in the thickening twilight lies Roy's Cafe, a rustic high-desert hangout for weary Route 66 pilgrims, including Ronald Reagan and Harrison Ford (or so the guidebook says). Alas, it's already closed for the night.

Dead ahead, huge lightning bolts crack the sky, casting an eerie pallor over the surrounding moonscape. Suddenly, I feel like Janet Leigh in "Psycho," eyes scanning the rearview mirror, ears straining for those slashing Bernard Hermann chords. As a sheet of rain clatters violently across the windshield, an ominous thought hijacks the brain: Wasn't that a flash-flood warning sign a mile or two back?

This wasn't exactly the Route 66 I'd come looking for, the Route 66 of Howdy Doody-era diners and irresistibly cheesy souvenir stands, a nostalgic slice of pure Americana frozen in amber like some prehistoric insect. Certainly it didn't much resemble the Route 66 depicted in the colorful Automobile Club of Southern California map spread out on the passenger seat beside me, a "greatest hits" anthology of wigwam motels, meteor craters, auto museums and folksier-than-thou truck stops.

No, this lonely, bewitching, exhilarating stretch of asphalt was more akin to what greeted Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, who crossed the Colorado River from Arizona, just up the road. After traveling hundreds of miles and enduring heat, cold, hunger, exhaustion and marauding goon squads bent on turning them back, those desperate migrants knew Route 66 as a harshly exotic highway, tinted with beauty and danger, promise and menace. It was "the connection between wherever people were and wherever they wanted to be," as Paul Snyder, director of the newly opened Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Ariz., puts it.

It's this Route 66, a gritty mental Polaroid framed by Walker Evans, that still grips the imagination of thousands of visitors who come here from around the globe every year. And it was this Route 66 that now flashed hypnotically across the stormy landscape, with hardly another human being in sight.

Such trance-inducing solitude may be tougher to find in the coming months. Seventeen years after its last broken fragments were decommissioned by the federal government and left for scavengers, Route 66 has become America's best-known comeback trail. Since the mid-1980s, dozens of books, videos, TV specials and travelogues have celebrated its motley heritage. This year, the 2,448-mile artery stretching from Illinois to Southern California is being feted with barbecues, biker rallies, mariachi concerts, car shows, arts and crafts festivals, rodeos, foot races and tractor pulls, right up to and beyond its official 75th birthday on Nov. 11. Not surprisingly, automobile clubs and major car manufacturers are backing some of the misty-eyed appreciations.

But the Route 66 revival can't be written off merely as manufactured nostalgia. Once a tattered road that time forgot, the highway is now part of a growing movement that reflects shifting cultural values. Route 66 preservation groups have sprung up in all eight states the road traverses, and under the Historic Route 66 Corridor Act, signed into law by President Clinton, $10 million in federal funds will be used over the next decade to help restore businesses and tourist attractions along the way.

To its boosters and interpreters, Route 66 has become the Moby Dick of American roadways, a convenient catch-all symbol of the frontier spirit, middle-class Manifest Destiny or, at the other extreme, Kerouacian free-spiritedness. If it didn't already exist, American pop culture probably would have to invent it. Which, in a sense, is what it's been doing for the past seven decades, as became clear during a recent 1,300-mile odyssey from the San Bernardino foothills to the New Mexico border and back.

At one time, Route 66 linked Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago with the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, making it the world's longest drive-thru metaphor. Although photographs showing the road ending at the Santa Monica Pier have been revealed as fakes, it was invested with a sea-to-shining-sea unity and a brawny New Deal populism. It even had its own soundtrack, courtesy of the late Encino resident Bobby Troup, who had been "getting his kicks" (and, one hopes, his royalty checks) from "Route 66" for more than half a century.

Today, huge swaths of the road have been interred beneath interstates, or cut and pasted into charmless frontage roads and spotty commercial strips, like the one that escorts motorists through Fontana and San Bernardino before plunging on through the Cajon Pass.

There, on L.A.'s suburban fringes, nature takes a back seat to chain restaurants, gun and ammo shops and the Adult Fantasy 66 Book and Video store. Fifty yards or so to the east, the Wigwam Village Motel, a vestige of better times, urges guests to "Do It in a Tee Pee." Easy to see why Frank Lloyd Wright concluded that, "Route 66 is a giant chute down which everything loose in this country is sliding into Southern California."

But around Victorville, where the metropolis finally dissolves into the desert, the spirit of the road takes over, tugging motorists past fossilized trailer parks and crumbling Mexican restaurants. Twenty miles east of Barstow, in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it hamlet of Newberry Springs, a truck pulls into the Bagdad Cafe, which, like much else on Route 66, partly owes its survival to the power of Hollywood myth-making.

Inside, Phil Dickson, the 22-year-old cook, labors over a deep fryer while his wife Jessica fields orders behind the counter. "Are your buffalo burgers really buffalo?" one trucker wants to know. Jessica shrugs.

The cafe is a classic instance of fictional greasy spoon imitates life imitates greasy spoon. A dozen years ago, the down-and-out diner formerly called The Sidewinder was cast as itself in the cult film "Bagdad Cafe," about the odd-couple friendship that develops between a German woman stranded in the California desert and the black woman who runs the local hash house. The movie was only a minor stateside hit, though it later spun off a CBS comedy series starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton. But "Bagdad Cafe" struck certain Continental viewers as a charming American parable of eccentricity and tolerance, setting off a stunning Euro-tourism boom.

Today, the real Bagdad Cafe, which sells videocassettes of the movie, is listed in Japanese, French and German guidebooks, and its guest log is filled with comments like, " Fantastique! Comme le film !" Slowly, the cafe is even catching on with jaded Californians. "Huell Howser's come through here, Peter Fonda came through here," Dickson says. "There's a lot of Europeans who base their whole visit to the U.S. on making this one of their pit stops."

No ordinary Hollywood auteur, however, could've dreamed up the cafe's star attraction, General Bob, a T-shirted, ponytailed Baron Munchausen who claims he once spoke 9,000 languages (including fluent hyperbole) and now diverts travelers with tales of his globe-trotting escapades. Peering through wraparound sunglasses, General Bob leans over his roast-beef sandwich and mutters conspiratorially that no one in town, not even the seemingly happy-go-lucky Dickson, can be trusted. "I've had 600 people in this town trying to kill me," he says. "Six-, 8-year-olds, they're the spies, they're the lookouts."

Just then, a young Parisian couple enters the diner and orders up chocolate milkshakes. Yes, the man says eagerly, they'd seen "Bagdad Cafe" years ago and decided to stop by en route from Las Vegas to L.A. At the cash register, Dickson discreetly offers some advice about General Bob. Apparently, several European TV news crews have reported his stories as gospel truth. "Don't believe everything he tells you," Dickson adds redundantly.

"Brave New World" author Aldous Huxley, who lived for more than 25 years in Southern California, once wrote that the shimmering light of the desert can bestow either clarity or madness on its inhabitants. Which condition best described General Bob? Which, for that matter, best describes Route 66 and its two-lane, split personality? Before World War II the road offered desperate people an exit from poverty and ruin. Afterward it came to epitomize affluence, recreation, family, the good life. How could those disparate paths be reconciled? And what did either have to do with the flotilla of SUVs and 18-wheelers roaring by on I-40, a few dozen yards away?

"Try us, you'll like us," promised the sign at the Best Motel in Needles, which fronts on Route 66. But a $22 room there featured dead bugs in the bedsheets and an air conditioner whose preset dials kept the temperature barely below sweat lodge conditions, making sleep possible only in fitful snatches.

Next morning, at the Hungry Bear Diner, a booth covered in Route 66-pattern fabric supplied the ideal spot for plotting a passage to Oatman, Ariz. A fraying, Hollywood movie-set vision of a frontier town, tucked inside the hair-raising curves of the Black Mountains, Oatman has two distinct claims to fame. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned there in 1939, and a population of wild burros left over from mining days still roams the streets, soliciting edible donations from tourists. Tin-roofed shacks and gardens constructed from found objects offset tchotchke boutiques and the Oatman Hotel. Weekends are reserved for staged gunfights.

But the town's real attraction, looming on all sides, is a landscape of surpassing beauty and strangeness: teetering rock fortresses, cars held together by rust, wind-scoured chasms that drop away hundreds of feet into nothingness. According to a posted sign, so terrifying were the area's snaking roads, especially the infamous Sitgreaves Pass, that many Okies and Arkies would hire locals to tow their Model A's and T's through to safety. Ansel Adams would've loved this place. Or Mad Max.

A marker designating "Historic Route 66" (as the road's remains now are called) leads out of Oatman, down through a valley and on into Kingman, Ariz., a sprawling town of 21,000 that somehow feels much larger. At the impressive new Route 66 Museum, which opened last May in a converted powerhouse, director Paul Snyder says this artery's origins go back way before the Great Depression.

For centuries, Native Americans had been using local trails as trade routes connecting the Southwest and Mexico with the Pacific Coast. By 1851, the U.S. Army was mapping out a road along the 35th parallel, an ancestor of the legendary highway. Toward the end of the 19th century, railroads were bringing immigrants and tourists into the area. Fred Harvey furthered the cause with his turn-of-the-century empire of hotels and restaurants laid out along rail lines. "There was a whole culture built up along this road," Snyder says.

The guts of the museum's permanent exhibition is a series of black-and-white documentary-style photos of migrant families. These stark images of hollow-cheeked children flopped on filthy mattresses, and grim-faced police inspectors at the California state line, are underscored by a famous passage from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath": "And they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

Snyder shakes his head. "There's plenty of people buried out by the roadside," he says. "You wouldn't know it, but they didn't make the trip."

The exhibition's final third is devoted to a re-creation of a Route 66 small-town Main Street, complete with a beautifully restored banana-yellow 1950 Studebaker. A wall plaque describing the road's postwar heyday comes spiked with a liberal dose of conservative perspective: "Closets were for clothes, not for 'coming out of.' Gay meant joyful, bunnies were small rabbits .... 'Made In Japan' meant junk."

Downstairs, a gift shop operated by volunteers from the Historic Route 66 Assn. of Arizona offers every conceivable item capable of bearing the Route 66 logo: shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers, golf balls, steering wheel covers, jigsaw puzzles, tote bags, bar stools. Among the shoppers are a Hawaiian couple, Clint Bidwell and Debbie Chun, who bought a neon clock, some die-metal cars, and patio party lights for an upcoming birthday party in L.A. "There's a car theme going on at the party," Chun explains, "so we thought, Route 66."

Like the old road markers that have long since been torn down or stolen, Route 66 hails from an age when America seemed infused with a monochromatic directness, a black-and-white starkness. It permeated not only movies and television but attitudes about race, religion, sexuality, the future.

That may be one reason why the 98-mile segment of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman astounds with its Technicolor variety and vitality. Driving this gorgeous slice of mesquite-covered hills, broken every few miles by a restaurant or solitary general store, is like driving through a hand-colored still photograph, circa 1945. Or like reading Steinbeck's best prose: by turns majestic and humble, coolly workmanlike and wildly romantic, even sentimental. The landscape, beyond merely stirring, feels sacred.

That connection runs deep for the people of the Hualapai Tribe, whose reservation rises on a brow of Route 66 in Peach Springs. But times have been tough since the interstate was built. Nowadays, virtually the only local employment option is conducting helicopter or rafting tours of the Grand Canyon, says Michelle LaPointe, a planning clerk at the tribal office. Most guidebooks make no mention of the reservation, a clutch of identical earth-toned homes, many abandoned, with boarded-up windows and trash-strewn yards. On one back porch a group of young children practices firing a pellet gun.

Beyond a great wall of mountains, the tiny railroad town of Seligman (population 1,000) meanders into view. Visiting Seligman without stopping by Angel Delgadillo's barber shop is like visiting Buckingham Palace without meeting the Queen Mum. Many regard the 74-year-old haircutter, whose older brother Juan runs the next-door Snow Cap Drive-In, as the savior of Route 66 in the Southwest. When I-40 bypassed Seligman in September, 1978, Delgadillo began organizing business owners into an association to promote the historic road.

"Here in America we all clamor for something bigger, better, brighter.

You talk to people from Germany, Holland, their countries have been torn up by wars. We do it with our tractors," says Delgadillo. An avuncular presence, he retired from haircutting four years ago but will whip out his clippers on demand if a visitor requests a trim.

Nowadays there's virtually a nonstop parade of European and Japanese sightseers through the barbershop and adjoining gift store, both of which are lined top to bottom with business cards, license plates and other mementos. "They want to take a little bit of us," Delgadillo says, "and they want to leave a little bit of themselves."

Past Seligman, Route 66 dawdles, pauses, nearly grinds to a complete halt. Then it loops back into I-40 west of trendy Flagstaff, where the hippie-chic skiing and rock-climbing crowd cruises the downtown espresso bars, but many locals prefer the Museum Club, a boot-scootin' country music saloon with trees planted in the middle of the dance floor.

Fifty years ago, before the theme-parking of America, such a sight might've stopped a traveler in his tracks. But as the miles fly by, no man-made object on Route 66 retains the power to amaze. Not the guitar-player statue standing on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., immortalized by the Eagles in their '70s pop hit "Take It Easy." Not the famous giant Twin Arrows that rise above the ruins of a once-booming truck stop, where a half-dozen big-riggers usually can be found idling, as if expecting a ghostly waitress to sidle up and murmur, "Coffee, hon?"

Not the town of Joseph City, site of both the oldest Mormon community in Arizona and the equally revered Jack Rabbit Trading Post, which, besides offering the usual Kachina dolls and Minnetonka moccasins, lures passersby with a unique homemade brew.

"Cherry cider is our big thing. I guess you could call it the gimmick," says Phil Blansett, who ran the Jack Rabbit for 25 years with his wife, Pat, before turning it over to their daughter and son-in-law.

He says there's "less riffraff" now that this corner of Route 66 has been supplanted by a shiny concrete ribbon.

Not even the geodesic "country store"/gas station that abuts the mile-wide, 570-feet-deep Meteor Crater, "This Planet's Most Penetrating Natural Attraction."

"Did you ever see 'Starman,' the John Carpenter movie, with Jeff Bridges?" asks the female attendant. "Good movie. Came out around the same time as 'Star Wars' so it kind of got lost. Shot it right here. He plays an alien who crashed in Wisconsin and takes the body of a woman's deceased husband. In the movie, he goes into a cafe and the cook brings him some cherry cobbler, and he doesn't know what it is. Sat right there and ate it. Good movie."

Maybe that's it, I thought: How can a bumpy, inconvenient old country lane hope to compete with the exciting new Virtual America?

Turning south into the Petrified Forest, the diesel fumes and golden arches began to melt away. Even Route 66 yields to the ancient floodplain, where crystalline logs lie scattered like giant necklaces and time hangs in suspension.

Stripped of nostalgia by the desert's primal simplicity, Route 66 was, at last, more place than myth. The trip was ended. Two roads led home. The quiet one made the most sense.