By Phil Willon
Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Needles, Calif — Along old U.S. Route 66, the once-kitschy Overland Motel is crumbling, vacant lots pock downtown and, as if this remote desert outpost weren't suffering enough, the last car dealership folded up and left behind a blanket of empty asphalt.
Not a pretty picture for travelers who might pull off the highway for a burger or to spend the night.
Then, about five months ago, a man with a sun-stained face and paint-crusted fingernails drifted in, and the tiny old railroad town of Needles started looking a little brighter.
The first mural popped up on a bare cinder-block wall at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant: A giant Santa Fe locomotive chugging by a roadside sign for the "Route 66 Original Diner."
Another appeared at the Valero gas station, with two space aliens that look like ET driving down Route 66 in a 1950s Buick. Elvis and Marilyn took over the side wall of the Econo Smog with their two-tone Ford Fairlane convertible parked at the Colorado River. Marilyn sported aviators and the King, white leathers.
All pay homage to U.S. Route 66, the Mother Road, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and right through the heart of Needles before it was retired from the federal highway system in 1985. Other larger-than-life odes appeared seemingly overnight at the Needles Point Pharmacy and Liquor Store, Deco Food Service, the local Chevron station, the Miranda Car Wash and the local Best Western — more than a dozen murals in just a few months, and more are in the works.
The man behind the brush, Dan Louden, spent 30 years bouncing around truck stops in the West, hand-painting any long-hauler's piece de resistance on the cabs or trailers. He painted Harleys for the Hells Angels in San Bernardino — until that got a little too dicey for him — and hand-lettered signs for fish markets, high schools and auto parts stores all the way up to Seattle. He's pinstriped more hot rods than he can remember.
"I do it because there's a lot of fringe benefits that come with this. You travel, you do what you want," said Louden, 52, who grew up in Diamond Bar. "I just love the desert. I don't like living in big cities. I don't like the traffic. Out here you can sleep with the door unlocked."
Susan Alexis, owner of the Wagon Wheel, said that a couple years back, Louden did odd jobs for her and others around town, but they didn't know he was a master with a few cans of paint.
When he mentioned it to her while breezing through town earlier this year, she hired him on the spot. Alexis had wanted to paint the restaurant's side wall ever since noticing how ugly the bank of cinder blocks looked on Google Maps' street view.
"I just wanted to bring some nostalgia to the building. We have so much history here, but our town doesn't reflect it," Alexis said. "Now, everyone around town is talking about the guy."
Louden said he's been drawing and painting ever since he was a kid but never pursued it. Then one day, when he was about 20, he delivered paint to an "old school" sign shop in Yucaipa and his life changed forever.
Louden has a house outside of Kingman, Ariz., that he shares with his girlfriend, Vicky Bowden, a former nurse from Lone Pine.
With work pouring in, they have camped out at the Needles Inn for weeks at a time, working almost every day. It help that he's affordable — $500 for a mural covering the side of a small building — and fast. Most jobs are wrapped up in a day. When they overheat in the scorching Mojave sun, they take a dip in the Colorado.
"It's certainly brightened up downtown, and hopefully it'll help bring more tourists in," said Needles Mayor Edward Paget. "It's not like this was planned. People are doing it on their own — and they're being greatly encouraged by both myself and the City Council to improve downtown."
Most of the businesses hiring Louden have stuck to a Route 66 theme, honoring the highway that lighted up Needles during its last heyday. In November, the town also is celebrating the 85th anniversary of the road. Needles earned a certain fame when it was named in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."
"It was outrageously reasonable, and I think he captured the feel of the small town," said Needles accountant Michael Burger, who hired Louden to liven up his office building earlier this month. "It's a nice thing he's doing for the town."
Burger had a snapshot of his restored '57 Chevy truck and handed it to Louden, telling him to use that and then "do whatever you want." Twelve hours later, his building was covered with the gang from the Peanuts comic, including Snoopy's brother Spike from Needles — one of the town's biggest celebrities. Charlie Brown is at the wheel of the truck.
Louden also was hired to paint a memorial inside the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Station in Needles honoring Deputy Russell Dean Roberts, who was killed in 1995 while investigating an accident in the town.
Capt. Marty Brown of the county Fire Department also wants to hire Louden to paint the station in Needles.
"We just need to give the front a facelift — maybe to look like an old-school fire station," Brown said. "The firefighters will probably have to pay for it out of pocket, since it's pretty unlikely we're going to pay for that with public funds."
Louden says times are tough for everyone these days, which is why he keeps his prices low. He can afford to, he said, because there's more work than he can handle.
"The first sign painter I ever ran into told me that if you learn how to do this, you'll never go hungry. And he's absolutely right," Louden said. "You'll always find someone who needs something done."