By DAVID DANELSKI
His love of the automobile and the way a sunset illuminated a Mojave Desert mountain range inspired Gus Lizalde two decades ago to invest in a piece of Route 66 history.
He bought Chambless, a wide spot at the corner of Cadiz Road and National Trails Highway, part of old Route 66. It's a far flung outpost, halfway between Barstow and Needles, that once offered gas, food and lodging to motorists headed into or out of California.
Lizalde's dream of restoring Chambless to its mid-20th century heyday remains unfulfilled.
The gas station, store, restaurant, motel cabins and RV spaces are surrounded by barbed wire. Rattlesnakes hide out in the crumbling buildings. Only a few dozen cars pass by in a day.
But the Mojave Desert sunshine that dominates the landscape may soon be Chambless' economic savior, or so Lizalde hopes.
Dozens of large-scale solar energy projects are proposed on the publicly owned land that extends as far as the eye can see in every direction.
Lizalde, an Escondido resident and a manager at a San Diego County car dealership, said energy construction would bring workers who might want a convenient place for gas, a burger, a few groceries or a bed for the night.
"To bring this back, I need commerce," Lizalde said. "I need people coming through the front door. These solar projects will mean commerce."
One of the solar developments would blanket eight square miles along Route 66 just west of Lizalde's property. Two more to the south are proposed on some 80 square miles.
The federal Bureau of Land Management is processing 78 applications for desert energy projects between Ridgecrest and Mexico. So far, none has been approved.
Lizalde's excitement about the solar projects explains why he is worried about a move to create what backers have called a Mother Road National Monument. It would honor Route 66 and its colorful past as a conduit for dust-bowl refugees flooding into California and later as an east-west ribbon of freedom for vacationing Americans.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is drafting federal legislation that would create the monument on public land in eastern San Bernardino County, from the Mojave National Preserve on the north to Joshua Tree National Park on the south. It is expected to prohibit energy development in some areas.
Monument supporters fear development of too many wind and solar projects in territory used by the desert tortoise, a threatened species, and other wildlife.
Environmentalists are especially concerned about projects, such as the two near the Cadiz Valley south of Chambless, that would be built between wilderness areas, said Elden Hughes, a longtime environmental activist who has fought to protect the desert. Developing in such areas can impede animals that range between protected territories; such travel helps maintain their health and genetic diversity, experts say.
Standing in front of his boarded-up buildings, Lizalde pointed out a passing BNSF freight train to the south and a white limestone pit mine to the west.
"This is a good place for solar," he said. "It's not pristine."
A stocky man with a dark complexion, Lizalde looks younger than his 45 years. He radiated enthusiasm as he walked by scraps of twisted metal, old pipes and other debris. He described his vision for a multimillion-dollar makeover.
"It's going to be a full-blown restoration to the way it was built," Lizalde said. "I want to bring back that nostalgia."
The renewed Chambless would feature "totem" gasoline pumps with meters that look like clock faces. Lizalde said he wants to track down original pump bodies and retrofit them with modern gas-delivery and metering systems.
The main building would have a 1950s-style diner, a tavern and a souvenir/convenience store. He intends to fix up the nine concrete cottages behind the main building and build a swimming pool in the shield shape of the Route 66 road sign.
For the trailer park area, Lizalde envisions hauling in about 50 vintage Airstream trailers, refurbishing them and renting them out.
Why Airstreams? "They are so cool," he answered.
PIT STOP HISTORY
Chambless, or Camp Chambless as it was once known, was built by local settlers of the same name and opened in the early 1930s to serve the motorists using Route 66, which ran between Chicago and Santa Monica.
The business suffered after Interstate 40 opened in 1973, bypassing Chambless and a few other gas station-café stops that depended on Route 66 traffic.
Lizalde, a car buff who played with Hot Wheels as a kid and restored a 1967 Porsche as young man, said he was driving a Mustang in 1989 to visit family in Laughlin, Nev., when he first saw Chambless. The view and the history captured him, and four months later, he found himself signing papers to buy the property for about $250,000.
He said he took two years off to run the gas station, store, restaurant and motel, catering mostly to employees of a nearby agricultural operation, Cadiz Inc.
He had to close the businesses in 1993, he said, when environmental regulations forced him to remove underground fuel-storage tanks and clean up gasoline-contaminated soil at a cost of about $250,000. Other Route 66 gas stations that had been struggling to hang on also closed, Lizalde said.
With too little traffic passing by, he couldn't justify the investment needed to re-open the Chambless business, he said.
Time and nature have taken a toll on the place.
A wind storm blew off the roof extension that had shaded the gasoline pumps. To make the area safe, Lizalde said, he had to remove the concrete pillars that held it up.
Meanwhile, he has paid property taxes, fencing costs and other expenses.
"It reminds me of the movie, 'The Money Pit,' " he said.
Albert Okura, who owns the town of Amboy about 13 miles west of Chambless, said he wishes Lizalde success on his renovation.
"It's going to be an uphill battle," Okura said. "Gus is a good idea man, but it is hard to translate ideas into money."
It won't be easy, Lizalde acknowledged.
But construction of the solar plants should provide about three years of businesses, giving him time to market the place as a Route 66 destination.
"This will probably be the biggest restoration project all the way to Chicago," he said. "It will be the nicest facility on the road. And that will be a pretty good brag."