December 7, 2013

Next stop on our journey: Barstow

The Bottle Tree Ranch along Route 66 reveals some recycled treasures. / Courtesy photo

Written by Kathy Strong
Special to The Desert Sun

Traveling Route 66 through San Bernardino County is a journey through California’s early love affair with car travel and discovery. The official route from Chicago to Santa Monica traverses eight states and three time zones, but California’s portion through San Bernardino County is an off-the-beaten path worth taking.

Last week, we traveled from Needles, the gateway to California, through the nearly forgotten towns of Amboy and Newberry Springs. Now, heading on to Barstow, the road reveals early railroad history as well as a few surprises.

William Barstow Strong was the president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The Southern Pacific built a line from Mojave through Barstow to Needles in 1883, and, even today much of its economy depends on transportation. Before the advent of the interstate highway system, Barstow was an important stop on both Route 66 and Interstate 91.

Probably the most recognizable symbol of Barstow’s train heritage is the Harvey House, built in 1910. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the once elegant rail depot, restaurant and hotel complex was designed by renowned Fred Harvey Company with a blend of Spanish Renaissance and Classical Revival architecture styles. Today, the structure functions as an Amtrak stop, visitor center and locale of the Barstow Route 66 Mother Road Museum.

Barstow is also known for its historic murals that line the old town area along Route 66’s Main Street.

Folk art forest

As a child, Elmer Long used to travel through the desert with his dad, who would collect discarded objects they found. When his father passed away, he left behind a sizable collection of colorful bottles, and Long struggled to decide what to do with the unusual collection. One day, the artist decided to build his first bottle tree on his desert ranch. Today, Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66 west of Barstow has hundreds of imaginative scrap metal bottle trees made from recyclable discoveries, from typewriters to saxophones. There is no charge to wander the outdoor glass and iron “gallery,” and Long is often there to greet guests who stop by.

Victorville's tribute

About 15 miles further on the Mother Road is Victorville, home to the California Route 66 Museum. Sharon Foster, a museum docent and board member, said that 60 percent of visitors are international travelers who have seen the “Grapes of Wrath,” and, most recently, Disney’s “Cars.” The museum has three rooms dedicated to the history of the Mother Road and several hands-on exhibits that make unique photo-ops, from an old VW hippie van to a classic ’40s aluminum trailer set for a picnic.

Iconic motel

A journey along California’s Route 66 is not complete without a stop at the Wigwam Motel, which opened in 1949. The Patel family took over the motel about 10 years ago, restored the 19 “wigwams” and added a pool and other upgrades.